Four female pilots filed complaints Tuesday with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that Denver-based Frontier Airlines discriminates against pregnant and breast-feeding pilots.
The women described the challenges as breastfeeding mothers, including battling infections from being unable to pump or doing so in an airplane lavatory.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the New York-based law firm Holwell Shuster and Goldberg LLP filed the complaint on behalf of the women. On its website, the ACLU alleges that “Frontier’s policies violate state and federal laws against sex discrimination in employment because they treat pregnancy and breast-feeding less favorably than other medical conditions or disabilities and have a disproportionate effect on women.”
Randi Freyer, 31, has been a pilot for 10 years. A mother of two daughters, 6 months and two-years-old, Freyer said she doesn't plan to have more children. But she and three other Frontier female pilots say they filed sex discrimination charges against their employer with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) so future moms don't have to choose between their jobs and breastfeeding their children.
The pilots say their employer isn't providing adequate accommodations related to breastfeeding and pregnancy. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding exclusively for babies' first six months. Besides wishing to feed their babies, the women say being unable to express milk can lead to physical discomfort, a decrease in milk supply or mastitis, which is an infection in the breast tissue.
"For a man, it's like you have to go to the bathroom, and if you wait to go to the bathroom there's a risk you could get a bladder infection," Freyer said, when explaining mastitis.
The women describe the logistical challenges for breastfeeding pilots in the male-dominated industry. Of the 590,039 pilots with active airmen certificates in the U.S. as of Dec. 31, 2015, under 7 percent were women, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Freyer describes moments when she is unable to take a break during a six-hour flight, or sitting in an airplane bathroom while the passengers are deplaning to express milk for 20 minutes or more. For overnight trips, she described challenges that traveling breastfeeding mothers face to preserve milk before it spoils.
"Each night you’re away, you hope the hotel has a fridge. Sometimes they have a community fridge, and you’re concerned about sanitation," Freyer said. "If it was longer than three or four days I would just ship it home."
The women emphasize that they aren't asking for accommodations that would put passenger safety in jeopardy.
"Safety is everything to us, and that’s the first thing we focus on. That’s never compromised," Freyer said.
Frontier requires pregnant pilots to take eight to 10 weeks of unpaid leave before their due date, according to the complaint. Frontier's pilots' union negotiated a contract in 2007 in which pilots can work through the 32nd week of pregnancy with medical clearance.
The women, who aren't suing for money, are asking the EEOC to require Frontier to provide women the option of a temporary ground assignments so they can continue working during pregnancy or breastfeeding. They also are asking the airline to allow them more than the 120 days of unpaid maternal leave they now have to permit women to continue breastfeeding. In addition, they're asking for designated places to pump while on the job, including at airports that Frontier uses and on an aircraft when necessary.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 requires employers to provide “reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for 1 year after the child’s birth each time such employee has need to express the milk," in non-bathroom location shielded from view.
Freyer said she understands breastfeeding and expressing milk with a breast pump can be uncomfortable topics to some male colleagues.
"A lot of guys who haven’t had kids are probably uncomfortable," she said. "It’s okay if they don’t want to know. That’s fine."
But Cindi Ruff, Frontier Airlines' vice president of human resources, said, "This is completely a safety issue."
Ruff points to FAA regulations, stating that if a crew member leaves the flight deck for 20 or 30 minutes to pump breast milk, the remaining crew member is technically required at certain altitudes to put on an oxygen mask and an in-flight crew member must remain in the flight deck during the absence.
"It's not that we don't want them to pump," Ruff said. "It's a safety issue. When you have one person removed from the flight deck, other crew members are taken away from their other duties."
Ruff said Frontier has identified places for mothers to express milk at all of their stations and are available upon request to mothers who need it. She also said Frontier has worked with pilots who raised this issue and adjusted their schedule so they have less flying time.
One pilot, Shannon Kiedrowski, alleges she was disciplined after a co-pilot complained she used a breast pump on the aircraft, according to the complaint. Ruff declined to discuss disciplinary actions.
Ruff said the complaint with the EEOC is under review with Frontier's legal counsel.
The pilots emphasize that they love their jobs despite the challenges.
"I love my company. I love flying. I love all those pilots. If it wasn’t for all those pilots who supported me, there’s no way I could have fed her until she was weaned," Freyer said of her first daughter.
Frontier Airlines released a statement that read, "Our policies and practices comply with all federal and state laws as well as with the relevant provisions of the collective bargaining agreement between Frontier and its pilots group. 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. We have made good-faith efforts to identify and provide rooms and other secure locations for use by breastfeeding pilots during their duty travel."