DENVER (CN) – The airplane lavatory was hot and cramped, and pilot Shannon Kiedeowski barely had enough time to pump breast milk before her next flight. She had been flying planes for Frontier Airlines since 2002 without an issue, until she had her first child in 2010 and a second in 2013.
On Tuesday, Kiedeowski and three other pilots sued Frontier in federal court claiming the airline discriminates against its pregnant and breastfeeding employees. Pregnant and breastfeeding flight attendants slapped Frontier with their own lawsuit.
“As a result of Frontier’s head-in-the-sand approach to pregnancy, our clients have been forced to choose between a profession they love and their ability to give birth and care for themselves and their newborns,” said Sara Neel, staff attorney at the ACLU of Colorado in a statement.
“More than 40 years since workplace pregnancy discrimination was first outlawed, it is senseless, outdated, and frankly outrageous that we are still litigating such basic workplace protections for pregnant workers,” Neel added.
According to the lawsuit, Frontier denied employees paid maternity leave – forcing expectant mothers to take unpaid leave weeks or months before they were due. The employees say the carrier ignored requests for temporary reassignment to positions on the ground which would have allowed them to continue earning an income.
Named flight attendant plaintiffs say they “chose their careers as flight attendants because of their love of travel, their joy in meeting new people and learning about different places, and their dedication to helping others.”
The pilots “chose their careers as pilots because of their passionate love of flying—for most, it was the only career they’d ever considered,” according to their lawsuit.
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a pilot,” said Frontier pilot Brandy Beck a statement. Beck’s mother was a flight attendant, while her daughter aspires to be a pilot. “I am filing this lawsuit for the women who will come next – so they never feel like they are forced to choose between caring for themselves and their families and doing the work that they love.”
Both groups of women planned to balance their careers with raising children but found their employer placed numerous obstacles in the way.
They say Frontier’s "dependability policy" meant pregnant women were docked points when they took time off to attend medical appointments.
And the carrier failed to provide breastfeeding mothers with time and space to pump milk, leaving them “with the Hobson’s choice of continuing to breastfeed or earning a paycheck,” according to the lawsuit.
Breastfeeding is associated with numerous health benefits for both mothers and their babies, but it can be a time-consuming operation and is difficult without workplace accommodations. Most women need to pump milk or nurse every three to four hours to maintain milk supply. Failing to express milk regularly often causes pain, infection, and a reduction in milk supply.
Despite the airline policy prohibiting employees from pumping milk on breaks, flight attendant Renee Schwartzkopf pumped milk in an airplane lavatory. Melissa Hodgkins, another flight attendant, quit breastfeeding altogether. Erin Zielinski developed painful mastitis from being denied time to pump milk and says she was accused of "baiting" the airline when she requested schedule accommodations via email.
According to the women, all pregnant and breastfeeding women employed by Frontier faced with similar options.
"Frontier’s failure to account for plaintiffs’ needs related to pregnancy and breastfeeding caused them to suffer serious penalties, both at and outside of work, simply because they had children,” the women say in their lawsuit. “Plaintiffs faced discipline for absences related to pregnancy and were eventually forced onto unpaid leave weeks or months before their due dates with no alternatives, depriving them of critical income when they needed it the most.”
The flight attendants and pilots filed 67-page class actions levying similar complaints against Frontier. Both groups are represented by Holwell Shuster & Goldberg LLP, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Colorado.
Claims include sex discrimination and violations of the Civil Rights Act, the Family Medical Leave Act and state laws. The women week a permanent injunction to prevent Frontier Airlines from continuing its discriminatory practices, as well as monetary back pay to women who missed work due to the airlines policies.
In a statement, Frontier denied the allegations.
“Frontier Airlines has strong policies in place in support of pregnant and lactating mothers and remains committed to treating all of its team members equally and fairly,” spokesperson Jennifer de la Cruz said. “Frontier offers a number of accommodations for pregnant and lactating pilots and flight attendants within the bounds of protecting public safety, which is always our top priority.”
The budget airline’s main hub is in Denver.