Last month, we reported that four female pilots filed discrimination claims against Frontier Airlines with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In the suit, filed with the assistance of the ACLU, the pilots — Brandy Beck, Shannon Kiedrowski, Erin Zielinski and Randi Freyer — charge that Frontier Airlines has unfair practices regarding pregnancy and does not provide adequate accommodations to female pilots who are breastfeeding.
Now, the ACLU tells Westword that the EEOC has taken up the claim and will begin an investigation of the airline's policies.
"The EEOC has given us charge numbers, which means they will initiate an investigation,” says the ACLU's Galen Sherwin. “Typically, the process takes several months."
Sherwin adds that the filing has already been getting attention across the airline industry, where women make up only 4 to 6 percent of all pilots.
"I think other airlines have taken note,” Sherwin says. “These charges were the first, and I think we're likely to see more. Women pilots are talking to each other and realizing that the situation that they've been working under is unfair and puts them at a serious disadvantage in their careers."
Such was the case for Brandy Beck, one of the four Frontier pilots involved in the discrimination charge. Beck says that Frontier's policy requiring women to return to work after only 120 days of unpaid maternity leave creates a difficult situation for female pilots, especially those who are breastfeeding their newborns. Beck tells Westword that when her son was born in 2013, she repeatedly asked Frontier's human resources department for a list of locations where she could breast-pump at airports around the country, but was routinely ignored.
"I really I felt like anything I asked fell on deaf ears," Beck says.
So instead, she conferred with other female pilots at Frontier who had given birth during their employment, and found they had similar stories. The other three women involved in the EEOC complaint all say that they suffered from mastitis, an infection of the breast tissue, because Frontier did not provide facilities where they could regularly breast-pump.
Beck, who had dreamed of becoming a pilot since she was five years old and achieved that goal working for Frontier Airlines during the past twelve years, says she has no plans to move on. When she helped file the discrimination complaint last month, she remembers being nervous about how her employer would react, but she's found her co-workers and immediate supervisors at Frontier to be supportive.
She only hopes that Frontier's upper management will change its policies as a result of the EEOC's investigation.
Jacki Peter, Frontier's vice president of labor relations, says that Frontier has tried to accommodate female pilots who are new mothers. “We have fairly liberal work rules that allow pilots to modify their schedules," Peter says. “And in the instances of these [four] pilots, we've allowed them to significantly drop the required number of hours that they normally are required to fly."
Peter also provided Westword with a list of breast-pumping locations at airports around the country to demonstrate that Frontier has compiled that information and makes it available to pilots. She could not say why the four pilots involved in the EEOC filing all claim that they were not able to obtain that same information.
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But Peter does point out that flying is a unique profession that involves extra safety precautions, which is why female pilots are required to go on leave at 32 weeks into their pregnancy and aren't allowed to breast-pump during flights once they return 120 days after delivery.
When asked if Frontier might consider extending its mandatory 120-day return, Peter responds,
"All of that is set forth in our contact that's negotiated with the pilots' union.... We are in contract negotiations now — in the early stages – and it's certainly a topic we'll be visiting."
As for Beck, the pilot says she wants to even the playing field between men and women. "I'm doing this for every other mother out there who should be able to do it all,” she says.
“I don't think we should have to make the choice between a career and a family."