The skies aren't as friendly as you might think when it comes to pilots who are new moms. The ACLU recently filed discrimination complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against Frontier Airlines for failing to accommodate pregnant and breastfeeding female pilots.
The four female pilots say the company forced them to take unpaid leave 8 to 10 weeks before their due dates (when they could still work in another capacity, if not flying), and that they don’t provide time or a place to pump breastmilk when they return to work. The airline allows up to 120 days of unpaid maternity leave.
These moms say they don't want to hurt the company or sue them into oblivion for the cash—they just want some common-sense accommodations that, by law, they should be getting. They want to continue their work while still being able to breastfeed safely and comfortably.
In the suit against the airline, the women say they've lost wages, feared they’d lose their jobs and also suffered from mastitis infections due to the company policies that have prevented them from being able to regularly and safely express breast milk.
One of the four female pilots part of the complaint, Randi Freyer, told the Denver Post that she was asked to go on maternity leave at 33 weeks or sooner, and that when she returned to work eight months after her child was born, it was very difficult to get answers about nursing accommodations. She says she emailed 10 times and called at least a dozen times to speak with supervisors and human resources, but her emails and calls were never returned.
With only 45 minutes turnaround time between flights, Freyer said, she didn’t have enough time to find a place in various airports suitable for pumping, let alone actually do the pumping and make it back on board for her next scheduled flight. Despite the company saying they've made "good-faith efforts" to provide secure, clean locations for breastfeeding pilots during their travel schedules, Freyer said that she was not a stranger to pumping in the aircraft lavatory—which is often hot, cramped and unsanitary—when she was in pain and didn't have a suitable place or amount of time to pump between flights.
A company spokesman has said that Frontier's policies comply with federal and state laws, "as well as collective bargaining agreements with its union-represented pilots."
In an email to the Denver Post, the spokesman wrote, "While there are many workplaces that might allow for nursing mothers to express breast milk during a break from work activities, the duties of a commercial airline pilot present unique circumstances."
But still, that doesn't mean these moms shouldn't have proper accommodations while breastfeeding. Where it can get difficult, experts say, is that female pilots often make up a small percentage of the collective bargaining unit, so between that and the physical demands of the job, policy implementation can be tough.
What happens next? The EEOC can either decide to take the case against the airline on its own, or it can give the ACLU the right to continue with the case. Lactation accommodation discrimination lawsuits are on the rise, according to the National Women's Law Center in Washington, D.C. The benefit of this? Employers who fail to provide accommodations for breastfeeding mothers are risking legal action against them, and may be more likely to implement better policies before it gets to that point.