This week, the ACLU and the law firm Holwell Shuster & Goldberg announced they were filing discrimination charges on behalf of four female pilots against their employer, Frontier Airlines, for “failing to provide accommodations related to pregnancy and breast-feeding.” In a blog post on the ACLU website, one of the pilots, Shannon Kiedrowski, contends that “Frontier does not make any accommodations for us to be able to pump breastmilk”—no lactation rooms or dedicated breaks—which meant that three of the pilots developed mastitis, an infection of the breast tissue, and the fourth lost her milk supply prematurely. At one point, Kiedrowski says, she was “disciplined” after a co-pilot complained about her using a breast pump.
Making matters worse, according to the lawsuit, Frontier policy dictates that pregnant pilots take eight weeks of unpaid leave before their due date, with no option for paid reassignment; pilots are also allowed 120 days of unpaid maternity leave, but few can afford to take all of it. In short, the pilots claim, Frontier’s policies caused them financial, emotional, and physical harm.
The movement to normalize pumping in the workplace has been frustratingly slow. The 2010 Affordable Care Act requires employers “to provide reasonable break time” for pumping as well as a dedicated place, “other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion,” for mothers using a breast pump. But the ACA clause is riddled with loopholes depending on the size of the firm and type of employee, and many companies have found ways to disregard it. In an infamous 2012 decision regarding a Houston mother who claimed her company fired her because she asked to pump breast milk at work, U.S. District Court judge Lynn Hughes rejected her claim, opining, “Firing someone because of lactation or breast-pumping is not sex discrimination.” (A higher court later overruled him.) Angela Ames, a Des Moines loss mitigation specialist, sued her firm when, on her first day back from maternity leave, she was denied access to a place to pump; after Ames had waited for five hours in escalating physical pain, according to her suit, the head of her department told her, “I think it’s best that you go home to be with your babies,” and dictated her resignation letter. Sound like an open-and-shut case of pregnancy and sex discrimination? Nope: In a uniquely enraging 2014 decision, the Eighth Circuit threw it out.
We can all hope for better for the Frontier pilots—as well as for Mary Gonzalez, the California Marriott employee who sued after the company denied her breaks to pump milk on the basis that she was a gestational surrogate, not a mother. At a moment when a man who once called a lawyer “disgusting” for requesting a break to pump milk is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, their victories would be all the sweeter.