Two female flight attendants have filed discrimination charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) today, claiming that their employer, Frontier Airlines, discriminated against them by failing to provide workplace accommodations for them related to pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Jo Roby and Stacy Rewitzer have worked for Frontier Airlines for 13 and 11 years, respectively. Both say that after giving birth, though they wished to return to work, they were forced on unpaid leave. They also asked for accommodations so that they would be able to pump breast milk, but were told that was not possible and were told they could not pump while on duty, despite often working 10-hour shifts and back-to-back flights.
Roby has been on unpaid leave from work since March 7, 2016, as a result of Frontier’s policies. In her complaint, she says she has “suffered from stress, anxiety, and financial harm” as a result of having to “put [her] health and breast milk supply at risk, or lose [her job].” As Frontier does not provide explicit maternity or parental leave for flight attendants, Roby was only able to use unpaid leave guaranteed by the Federal Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and her accrued sick days after she gave birth to her daughter on Dec. 1, 2015, and was scheduled to return to work when her daughter was 2 months old.
“When I was pregnant, it was all excitement about what to expect as a new parent,” Roby tells Yahoo Beauty. “I have been a flight attendant for so long, so I just assumed that I would be going back to work to do the job I know and have done for a long time. I was never concerned that was going to be a problem.”
Roby received a two-month unpaid medical leave extension, meaning she was due back at work when her daughter was 4 months old — and still being exclusively breastfed. When Roby asked Frontier for accommodations related to breastfeeding and pumping, she was not provided with any, and instead told she could take an unpaid leave of absence. She told the company she could not afford to take any more unpaid leave and was reminded that she was strictly prohibited from pumping while on active duty onboard an aircraft despite her serving 10-12 hour shifts. Roby had previously pumped mid-flight during breaks in her active on-flight responsibilities and knew from her colleagues and peers in the industry that pumping on-flight was a common occurrence.
For Roby, the response from the company that she couldn’t pump mid-flight was a “really big surprise.” “It is such a common thing. … I heard about it for years before I was a mom,” she says. “You go to the lavatory to pump. That was something I didn’t expect at all they would ever say that it wouldn’t be allowed.”
In her complaint, Roby says that Frontier’s failure to accommodate her need to pump every three to four hours has forced her to continue to apply for unpaid medical leave, which she is still on today. Intensifying Roby’s situation is the fact that under Frontier’s policies, an employee who has been on a leave of absence for more than 90 days must bear in full the cost of medical, dental, vision, and life insurance. In addition, Frontier does not make temporary alternative job assignments available to those flight attendants who are pregnant and are deemed unable to fly by their physician or for flight attendants who are breastfeeding and need the opportunity to pump breast milk.
“Pumping on-board the aircraft is something that’s been very commonplace in the industry and that just seems like a no-brainer and like something that they could easily permit,” Roby says. “Same with providing lactation facilities in Denver, so I wouldn’t have to sit on the floor in the family bathroom.”
Roby’s attempts to pump in the family bathroom at Denver International Airport, Frontier’s hub and Roby’s base airport, have been challenging as Roby says the conditions are unsanitary. There is no place to sit in the family restroom other than the toilet, so Roby was forced to pump while sitting on the floor. On one occasion, she saw cockroaches in the space. On another, airport cleaning staff told Roby not to use the family restroom because of the presence of urine on the floor.
Roby repeatedly asked her employer for information on alternate locations she could use to pump at the Denver airport, but has yet to receive any such information. Until she receives adequate workplace accommodations, Roby says, she has no option but to remain on unpaid medical leave.
“I never anticipated that I would get the resistance I faced [from Frontier],
Roby says. “When I thought [about] nursing [when I was pregnant], it wasn’t a concern I had. My biggest concern was just learning how to do it and making sure I could do it. That’s why they even have lactation consultants at the hospital to help you. That was what was at the forefront of my thoughts — how to do it and making sure my baby was getting the proper nutrition, not thinking that I couldn’t be able to continue to do my job while pumping while I was trying to provide nourishment for my daughter.”
The EEOC complaints, filed on behalf of the women by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of Colorado, and the law firm of Holwell Shuster & Goldberg LLP, asserts that Frontier’s policies violate federal and state laws against discrimination based on sex, pregnancy, childbirth, and disability in employment, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, Colorado’s Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, and the Colorado Workplace Accommodation for Nursing Mothers Act.
The flight attendants are asking the EEOC to require Frontier to provide clear and convenient accommodations for pumping while on duty (including on-board during flight when necessary), allowing for temporary alternative ground assignments for breastfeeding flight attendants, providing relief from the current strict attendance policy that penalized flight attendants who miss work due to pregnancy, and offering “meaningful” parental leave for new parents.
“I would love for them to look at the accommodations request and make the reasonable accommodations that we’ve asked for and that will affect so many more moms in the future,” Roby says of her hope for the outcome of her complaint. “That’s something that’s very important — to be able to do your job and to be able to be a mom that’s able to nurse and provide nourishment for your baby in that way.”
Roby adds that she misses being able to go to work and do a job she loves: “I have always loved flying and loved my job and having that be absent, and not by choice, has been difficult.”
Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, explains that if a person does face employment discrimination at work, filing an EEOC charge is the necessary first step in initiating legal proceedings. Once filed, she says, the EEOC will open an investigation into charges of discrimination and determine how a case will go forward.
“Like Jo, a lot of working moms — it doesn’t occur to them that they could still be facing these types of challenges [when they return to work after having a child],” Sherwin notes. “Many women don’t realize there is no federal mandate for paid maternity leave, that the only federal mandate is 12 weeks of unpaid leave [through FMLA], and that’s only for certain eligible workers. A lot of women are not aware before becoming pregnant that there are so few supports for working parents, and in particular working moms, in the workplace.”
Sherwin says that all employees should make sure they are armed with information about their legal rights in terms of sex discrimination, including pregnancy-related discrimination, and should know they “can certainly negotiate with their employer” to ensure that accommodations are made for them.
“Before returning to work, it’s a good idea to do what Jo and Stacy did, which is try to reach out to your employer and start a conversation about what accommodations are available and to come to the table with options, to be active participants in negotiations and conversations,” Sherwin says. “Employers will often provide accommodations and support. In some cases, unfortunately, like this one, they will not — and there is legal recourse.”
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