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Female pilots and flight attendants at Frontier Airlines say when the time came to start their families, they faced discrimination at work. In a pair of lawsuits filed in federal court in Colorado today, the employees say the low-cost airline failed to accommodate the needs of pregnant women and nursing mothers. They argue it's part of a long history of sex discrimination in their industry. NPR's Sarah McCammon reports.
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: After she had her kids, Shannon Kiedrowski had to navigate something most airline pilots, frankly, don't have to worry about; breastfeeding on the job. Kiedrowski says her plan to continue nursing after she went back to work raised some eyebrows among her colleagues at Frontier Airlines and even got her called into HR.
SHANNON KIEDROWSKI: First of all, they questioned why I was pumping, why I felt the need to breastfeed my child, implying that, you're a pilot. And, really, there's no place for you if you need to pump at work. There's other options, such as formula.
MCCAMMON: Only about 5% of U.S. airline pilots are women, so there wasn't a lot of precedent to follow. Kiedrowski says she thinks the airline may have been concerned about the safety of pumping in flight, but she says it's common for pilots to take breaks to use the restroom while a co-pilot stays at the controls.
KIEDROWSKI: It's not as though we're going to be pumping during takeoff and landing.
MCCAMMON: Her kids are 8 and 6 now, but Kiedrowski is part of a group of Frontier pilots and flight attendants who are suing their employer, accusing the Denver-based airline of violating state and federal laws protecting the rights of pregnant and nursing women. They say the company failed to provide time and space to pump breast milk and forced pregnant women to stop flying months before their due dates, leaving many without paychecks. Flight attendant Melissa Hodgkins says she began dipping into her unpaid leave around 34 weeks into each of her two pregnancies.
MELISSA HODGKINS: I was going to use up a lot of that precious stash of days before, you know, my children were even born.
MCCAMMON: With the long hours and lack of space to pump, Hodgkins says she quit breastfeeding months sooner than she wanted to, a decision she calls heartbreaking.
HODGKINS: You know, it sort of feels like, here's your first shot as a mom. And you're a failure.
MCCAMMON: The lawsuits on behalf of the pilots and flight attendants at Frontier follow similar complaints submitted to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In a statement, Frontier denied the allegations, saying the company offers, quote, "a number of accommodations for pregnant and lactating pilots and flight attendants within the bounds of protecting public safety." Sara Nelson is with the Association of Flight Attendants union. She says the lawsuits reflect a larger problem in the industry, where pregnant employees often lack paid maternity leave, and few have protections for breastfeeding. Nelson says there's a long history of sexism in aviation, going back to weight restrictions and other rules for flight attendants in the early years.
SARA NELSON: We couldn't be married or have children. And so these have all been issues that we have been fighting and beating back discrimination. And the issue of breast feeding and being a mother is more work that needs to be done.
MCCAMMON: Nelson notes that Frontier's most recent contract now allows up to six months of unpaid maternity leave, more than required by federal law. She says she hopes to see more flexible schedules, paid time off and other accommodations for moms who make their careers in the sky at Frontier and across the industry.
Sarah McCammon, NPR News.
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