Breastfeeding Policies Are Failing These Flight Attendants & They're Fighting Back

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iStock.com/Mutlu Kurtbas
There's no question that new mothers face a variety of challenges when they return to the workplace, but some professions make it more difficult for moms than others ... and it seems that flight attendants and pilots have it particularly hard, especially those employed by Frontier Airlines. This week, two flight attendants filed sex discrimination complaints against Frontier for allegedly failing to accommodate pregnant and breastfeeding employees -- exactly one year after four pilots working for the airline filed similar charges.

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As NBC News reports, flight attendants Jo Roby and Stacy Rewitzer each worked as flight attendants for Frontier for more than 10 years and both say that they were forbidden to pump breast milk while on duty. Shifts are usually more than 10 hours long (with back-to-back flights) and breastfeeding moms have to express milk every few hours (or else risk clogged milk ducts and infections, as well as decreased supply) -- so Roby and Rewitzer have said that they were forced to take "excessive" unpaid leave in order to keep breastfeeding their babies.

Frontier pilots Brandy Beck, Shannon Kiedrowski, Erin Zielinski, and Randi Freyer submitted Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints last May making the same type of allegations, saying that they also weren't allowed to pump on duty, and that the private pumping area mandated under Colorado's Workplace Accommodations for Nursing Mothers Act was not provided for them. 

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The women say that though they made repeated attempts to ask their supervisors for help in finding appropriate places to pump (as well as requests for schedule modifications that would make pumping feasible in the first place), they were either dismissed or ignored. 

"After multiple attempts I never got any response or communication," pilot Randi Freyer, a mom of two, tells CafeMom. "If I asked a direct question they'd answer what they wanted to and ignore anything related to nursing accommodations."

Freyer says the airline did, however, make it "very clear" that she was not allowed to pump anywhere on the airplane, not even in the bathroom. This restriction makes even taking on four- or five-hour flights a problem, she says, because she needs to pump roughly every four or five hours -- and having to find a place to pump on the ground in between flights is time-consuming, especially because she says the airline isn't providing such a place.

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"It's oftentimes six or seven hours before I can pump," says Freyer. That's a problem, because moms are susceptible to mastitis (a painful and potentially dangerous infection caused by clogged milk ducts). 

"[Frontier] said they would help accommodate my schedule and to contact them if I had any problems, but they haven't helped," she says.

For flight attendant Stacy Rewitzer, she says the fact that Frontier wouldn't give her a place to pump when she tried to return to work 12 weeks after giving birth to her son has led to her taking a full year off in unpaid leave (she asked for a temporary ground assignment so she could continue to breastfeed, but was refused). The loss of work, she says, is causing her and her husband both "emotional and financial stress," partly because Rewitzer says she is "still being penalized" for missing work during her pregnancy -- even though she provided Frontier with all the medical forms they asked for proving that her absence was unavoidable. (It's worth noting here that Frontier offers no paid maternity leave for flight attendants.)

"If I go back I'm very likely to have to be very careful," Rewitzer tells CafeMom. "If I'm one minute late I could be fired."

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Frontier's strict attendance policy, which is allegedly used to penalize moms and pregnant women like Rewitzer, is also being challenged in the complaint. With the help of the ACLU and law firm Holwell Shuster & Goldberg LLP, the flight attendants are charging Frontier with a violation of  Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The act bans sex discrimination in the workplace and states that "women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes."

In a statement, Frontier (which has not responded to CafeMom's request for comment at the time of publication) told NBC News that its policies "comply with all federal and state laws as well as well as with the relevant provisions of the collective bargaining agreement between Frontier and its flight attendant group." The airline also claims that it has "made good-faith efforts to identity and provide rooms and other secure locations for use by breast-feeding flight attendants during their duty travel."

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According to Freyer, however, those "good-faith efforts" were anything but. She says her supervisors didn't even tell her that there was an existing list of potential areas where it would be okay to pump in airports -- and she had to find out about it from a news article after she filed charges. But unfortunately, even after she demanded to see it, the list was no help.

"It was pretty inadequate -- some of the places didn't even exist," she says. "It was sad."

So how exactly is Frontier getting away with this? Part of the reason might be because while there is a federal law on the books mandating reasonable break times in private locations (other than a restroom) for moms for one year after giving birth (Breaktime for Nursing Mothers, a requirement of the Affordable Care Act), it doesn't apply to airline employees.

"It's full of loopholes and one of the big ones is folks who work for airlines," Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women's Rights Project, tells CafeMom of the federal provision.

"However, state law in Colorado does apply and essentially does the same thing, so we are bringing claims under that law as well as general laws protecting against sex discrimination and employment failure to provide accommodations for breastfeeding moms," she says.

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In the end, these flight attendants and pilots aren't asking for much: just the basic provisions that are supposed to be afforded to them by law, as well as more flexibility around schedules that are unreasonable for new moms. It just comes down to treating employees with decency and common sense, really. And while this is, everyone seems to agree, an "industry-wide problem," Frontier "falls behind" even most of the other airlines in its treatment of pregnant and breastfeeding women, Sherwin says.

What Freyer wants as a result of this suit, she says, is "something really basic" -- a set of guidelines for breastfeeding employees that tells them where and when they can pump, along with a list of approved locations that are actually acceptable to moms.

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"When you're a pilot, you read in a book how to start an engine," she says. "You know exactly how to perform that task. When you need guidance in a situation like this ... we need written information so it's not just word of mouth. I spoke to 10 or 15 women who all had different stories, different things the companies allowed. Not knowing what I could do without getting in trouble or putting my job at risk, it's a strange place to be in. I love my job; I don't want to lose it just for feeding my kids." 

"I want Frontier to change policies," agrees Rewitzer.

"We shouldn't have to choose between jobs and breastfeeding. They need to recognize the workforce is mostly women, many of us have babies during the time we work for Frontier ... it's not fair we have to choose."

It's not fair at all. It's discriminatory and sexist and wrong, and hopefully being hit with not one but two lawsuits in the span of a year will force Frontier to wake up and start treating its female employees with the respect they deserve. 

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