In 2016, four female Frontier Airlines pilots backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado lodged a gender-discrimination complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over policies that allegedly mistreated such workers who were pregnant or breastfeeding. The following year, flight attendants made similar claims in a filing of their own, also under the auspices of the same organization.
What's happened in the years since then? Not much — which is why the national ACLU, its Colorado affiliate, New York-based Holwell Shuster & Goldberg LLP, and Towards Justice, a nonprofit law firm that focuses on economic justice, have now delivered a pair of lawsuits against Frontier that seek to accomplish what the EEOC salvos didn't.
"This is obviously an important case to try and bring equality to an industry that is, certainly for the pilots, very male-dominated," says Sara Neel, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Colorado. "We want to provide room for women in that field, and we want to help flight attendants who want to nurse their children — who want to find a way to keep their job and exercise that option as a mother."
The folks at the carrier don't believe they're doing anything wrong. A statement from Director of Corporate Communications Jennifer F. de la Cruz reads: "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. 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. Frontier denies the allegations and will defend vigorously against these lawsuits."
The plaintiffs in the pilots' litigation are Randi Freyer, Erin Zielinski, Shannon Kiedrowski and Brandy Beck, whose original EEOC filing we've also included. The flight attendants' version has been put forward on behalf of Melissa Hodgkins, Stacy Rewitzer, Renee Schwartzkopf, Heather Crowe and "all others similarly situated," meaning that it's a class action that others in such circumstances can join.
The ACLU has also produced the following video about the pilots' case, with Beck front and center.
These steps have been a long time coming. Since the original complaints were issued, Neel notes, "the EEOC has been doing its investigation and going through the process they're required to do. They're the administrative agency that investigates claims of discrimination under federal and state anti-discrimination laws, and individuals are required to file with the EEOC first. Then there's a certain jurisdictional time period before you can file a lawsuit, and we've passed that."
Meanwhile, she continues, "Frontier has not been very cooperative during the process. Their response has been, 'Our policy is not discriminatory and we don't need to change anything.'"
The first lawsuit challenges a number of requirements placed on pilots. "They go on unpaid leave at 32 weeks of pregnancy regardless of their individual situation," Neel points out. "They're required to leave their job and stop making money at the time they need it most. So our claim is that Frontier is treating pregnant workers differently from other workers who are temporarily unable to fly. We're requesting that Frontier put a policy in place for temporary ground assignments, so they don't have to stop earning a paycheck." Likewise, "they're not provided any paid parental leave."
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As for flight attendants, "they're required to go back to work very quickly after they give birth, and if they're choosing to nurse their children, they face some serious hardships to figure out how they can pump [breast milk] throughout their workday. Frontier doesn't allow pilots or flight attendants to pump on the airplane, and there's not enough turnaround time to pump while they're on the ground. That's caused several of our plaintiffs past medical issues. The result of not pumping can be very painful and can lead to other medical conditions, as well as the reduction of milk supply and an inability to continue nursing."
Indeed, "some of our clients decided to forgo nursing upon returning to work because they knew how difficult it would be, despite wanting to nurse their children."
The EEOC has not yet come to a conclusion about these issues, but the assorted plaintiffs don't want to wait any longer to move forward. "At this point," Neel says, "we just thought it was time for this case to be decided by a judge."