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Pilots And ACLU Sue Airline Over Breast Milk Pumping At Work

Frontier Airlines says that there are places to pump breast milk at all the airports where it flies.
Michael Francis McElroy
Getty Images
Frontier Airlines says that there are places to pump breast milk at all the airports where it flies.

Brandy Beck considers herself lucky. As a breast-feeding mom, the Frontier Airlines pilot has experienced severe breast pain, engorged breasts, clogged ducts, decreased milk supply, three interruptions while pumping at work, and pumping in airport and airplane bathrooms.

But unlike some of her colleagues, she escaped mastitis. Mastitis is a bacterial infection of the breast that can occur with clogged milk ducts if women cannot fully express their breast milk. And not receiving adequate, legally required accommodations for pumping breast milk at work is precisely why Beck and fellow Frontier pilots Randi Freyer, Shannon Kiedrowski and Erin Zielinski are involved in a complaint against Frontier Airlines.

"All four of us love our jobs, we love flying for Frontier and we love flying airplanes," Beck says. "Most of us have wanted to do it all our lives, and we just want some equality in the workplace."

The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Colorado and the law firm Holwell Shuster & Goldberg LLP filed discrimination charges May 10 with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on the women's behalf. The charges claim that Frontier is discriminating against women by not providing sufficient accommodations for pregnant and breast-feeding employees.

"This has been a long process of trying to struggle to get these accommodations with no success," says Galen Sherwin, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU in the women's right project. "This lawsuit is the necessary last resort."

According to Sherwin, the ACLU and the law firm sent Frontier management a letter describing the women's difficulties and several possible solutions, including temporary non-flying assignments that would allow easier accommodations, extension of maternity leave if the women wanted it and designated places where the women could pump in airports Frontier uses and on the plane when necessary.

For its part, the airline says that it already provides places that comply with federal and Colorado state requirements in all airports it uses, according to Cindi Ruff, vice president of human resources at Frontier. Women can contact the station manager of each airport to find the location, she says.

"If they do [have those stations], they have not communicated that to the women I've spoken with, including women beyond these four pilots, despite repeated requests," Sherwin says. "If it's up to the individual woman to contact each individual airport on her own, that would not be a sufficient accommodation. It's tantamount to providing no support to the women."

Beck says the stations she does know of are often a half mile from Frontier gates and are sometimes insufficient, such as the one at Denver airport that was being used for storage when she needed it. As directed by an assistant pilot, she used a vacated office — and movers attempted to enter while she was pumping.

Any temporary reassignments are governed by the collective bargaining agreement of the pilots' union, Ruff told Shots. That contract only addresses non-flying reassignments for on-the-job injuries and states that pilots who cannot return to work after four months may be entitled to receive an unpaid medical leave of absence. Maternity leave also is unpaid.

"We assume that Frontier is in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations, and temporary reassignment is one potential accommodation that Frontier that would be legally obligated to provide," Sherwin said. "If they're offering that to people with disabilities, then they should be offering that to women."

Sherwin added that medical leave has only been granted for serious childbirth complications leading to physical injury or postpartum depression, and that breast-feeding women who requested it were denied.

Shannon Kiedrowski, one of the pilots involved in the suit, writes that she "battled for months to get Frontier's management to help future new moms." But, she says, "my efforts went nowhere."

Frontier's Ruff says that the airline has worked with pilots who have raised concerns and adjusted their schedules to have less flying time.

But less flying time doesn't address the needs for accommodations during flying time, Sherwin says. Beck says she plans her flight days carefully to schedule in pumping time, but unexpected and sometimes long flight delays can interfere, necessitating pumping during a flight.

"This situation is unique, but ultimately it's all about the safety of our passengers," Ruff says. "Being on an aircraft and being a pilot is a very unique situation, unlike any other profession, and unfortunately there are sometimes limitations in what can be extended to an individual."

The challenges for pilots are similar to those for surgeons operating, where the patient's safety is paramount, says Katy Kozhimannil, an associate professor of health policy and management at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.

"It is a unique circumstance, but there are other circumstances where businesses face similar challenges in managing the trade-off between the safety of the patients or passengers and the urgent health needs of their employees," Kozhimannil says. "If there are barriers, that's certainly understandable, and maybe there's a need for greater support for employers. But there have to be ways to try to address the needs of nursing mothers. It's extraordinarily important, and it's the law."

Pilots needing bathroom breaks leave the cockpit to do so, and the copilot must don an oxygen mask while the pilot is gone, Ruff says.

"The request is that women be permitted to take breaks during flights as needed on the same terms that pilots are able to address their other bodily needs," Sherwin says. "To say to a woman who's breast-feeding that you can't leave the cockpit to take care of her bodily needs but to allow everyone else to leave to use the bathroom is sex discrimination."

It can also have health consequences, Kozhimannil says. Her research has found that only 40 percent of full-time or part-time employed women surveyed in 2011 and 2012 have been provided both break time and private space to express breast milk, as required by the Affordable Care Act. Those women were also twice as likely to be exclusively breast-feeding at 6 months and more likely to breast-feed at all with each passing month.

"That's unsurprising, given the physiology of breast-feeding, because women need to express breast milk during the day when they're away from their child for their bodies to keep producing breast milk," Kozhimannil says. "When you stop expressing breast milk, your supply diminishes and you're no longer able to breast-feed." Clogged ducts and mastitis are other risks of not adequately expressing breast milk.

One possible solution more broadly would be state or federal laws requiring paid family leave, enabling the pilots to take a longer unpaid leave without losing as much income. Pilots are already required to start unpaid maternity leave 8 weeks before their due date and have the option of four more unpaid months after delivery.

"I believe it's unrealistic to ask a working mom to come back after four months and be away from her child for four to five days," Beck says, adding that the problem is industry wide for pilots and flight attendants. "Some people can afford that, and some people can't. The most ideal solution is to have choices, because every individual needs something different."

The U.S. is the only country in the world besides Papua New Guinea that does not require employers to provide any paid family leave, says Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work, a network of coalitions working for paid leave policies.

"We tell women to be good mothers and then we punish them for doing so by making their family suffer financial insecurity or by shaming them for doing something like breast-feeding," Bravo says. "That's got to change. It's a scandal that nearly one in four women go back to work within two weeks."

The only states currently requiring paid family leave are California, New Jersey, Rhode Island and, as of April 1, New York.

The lawsuit does not request money, Sherwin says.

"They would like ideally to have Frontier adopt these solutions so no other women would have to go through what they went through," Sherwin says. "It's 2016. It shouldn't be that women have to choose between their jobs and breast-feeding their babies, and that's why our clients are bringing the case."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 12, 2016 at 11:00 PM CDT
An earlier version of this story misattributed Brandy Beck's story and quotes to Randi Freyer.
Tara Haelle