SHE IS PETITE, rather attractive, with long, heavy eyelashes. Her voice is soft. She smiles a lot, and when she sits on the sofa of the condo canyon apartment, hands folded in her lap, she seems at peace with the world. Just the way she is supposed to be. It takes a few minutes to realize that Nora Feldman is fighting mad.
Feldman is an airline fight attendant. She is single, living with her close friend Larry, and she is pregnant. "It seemed like the right time," says Feldman, who is 36.
Only she found out it isn't the right time yet. Even with the new Pregnancy Disability Act and mixed court rulings from various parts of the country, the whole question of pregnant flight attendants and whether they can be grounded is still very much with us. In Feldman's case, there wasn't much question. She works for United, whose policy has been allowed to stand by the SupremenCourt, and Feldman knew what she had to do. She notified the airline in early October that she was pregnant and was immediately placed on involuntary, unpaid leave.
United has successfully argued that pregnant flight attendants can constitute a safety hazard to themselves, their fetuses, and their passengers in case of an airline emergency. So Nora Feldman became a safety hazard, a pregnant woman who might not be able to take care of herself or others as efficiently as if she were not pregnnat. Never mind that women across the ages have clothed, fed, bathed and chased after obstreperous 2-year-olds while pregnant. Somehow they can do all this, sometimes carrying still another child in their arms, yet they are deemed incapable by some courts and some airlines of helping people in airline emergencies. She would not be a safety hazard on Ozark or Northwest, which do permit pregnant attendants to fly, and she may not be a safety hazard next week when United revises its policies to make its whole system conform to a New York state ruling. But right now, Feldman is a safety hazard.
She also is unemployed, and when she filed in Virginia for unemployment compensation her situation went from bad to worse. To collect unemployment you have to be willing and able to work and you have to look for it. But the state of Virginia has decided that Feldman is not available for work since airlines won't hire pregnant flight attendants. Therefore, she cannot collect unemployment.
There is a way. "You can collect unemployment if you play their game," says Feldman. A hearing examiner who knew she was a flight attendant listed her primary occupation as secretary. That way, she could collect. People hire pregnant secretaries. "But you're lying. You're saying you're a secretary when you're not." Feldman crossed it out.
Nora Feldman is appealing the initial finding in Virginia and pointing out to the state that some airlines do hire pregnant flight attendants and that she has applied for work there as well as for airline ground work.
But no matter how it all comes out, Nora Feldman is going to lose thousands of dollars. At most, she figures she could collect about $3,000 in unemployment if her appeal prevails. Had she been permitted to work at her $20,000-a-year job, she could have earned over $7,000.
Nora Feldman is almost six months pregnant. "I feel I could be working now. Aside from being fatter, I've done fine." The weight limit for someone her height is 124 pounds. "I'm still six or seven pounds below my limit."
"It's a matter of what you're accustomed to doing. When being a flight attendant is your normal routine, it's different from taking a woman who is six months pregnant and asking her to do this thing on an airplane. I've been a flight attendant for 10 years. You're accustomed to being on your feet. You're accustomed to bending."
"I think airlines will continue to defend these suits on the grounds of safety," says Elizabeth Rindskovpf, a lawyer who is an expert on the issue. "People tend to associated pregnancy with women with greatly extended abdomens. In point of fact, they are being asked to allow a woman to fly until the 26th or a maximum of 28 weeks of pregnancy, when the girth of the abdomen is about 33 or 35 inches, or about the same as the average man. She'd be perfectly able to function in an emergency.
"Obviously, we're talking about a normal pregnancy. I don't think safety is the reason for the policy,. I don't think safety is affected, I think they're using safety as a screen for their real motivation. A pregnant stewardess doesn't comport with the airline's image of a flight attendant."
All this may soon end at United. The Supreme Court recently let stand a New York state court ruling that the state human rights division would prohibit United from forcing attendants to go on maternity leave as soon as they find out they are pregnant. United is now trying to adjust its nationwide policies to conform to the New York court ruling, which probably means that it will let pregnant attendants fly, according to spokesman Jim Linse.
But there are other airlines and ther is a larger principle at work here. In the New York case, the courts were asked to rule on whether the human rights division had the authority to impose its policy on the airlines. The courts said yes, and did not question the merit of the policy.
In an earlier move, the Supreme Court let stand a ruling that United Air Lines does not illegally discriminate against flight attendants by forcing them to take maternity leave as soon as they are pregnant.
It does, of course, discriminate. It discriminates against women on the very face of it and the only question is whether it's legal, whether pregnant women are unsafe and the discrimination is therfore a business necessity, because safety is the essence of an airlin's business. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction in Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas and West Virginia, has said such discrimination is lega. The Supreme Court, by refusing to hear the case, has, in effect, agreed.
So far, the court has not done right by the pregnant flight attendants. It has accepted all the old wives' tales about pregnant women getting nauseated all the time and fainting and being tired and irritable and the court has decided that attendants can't possibly help passengers out in an emergency in their delicate condition.
Only we don't call it a delicate condition any more.We call it being pregnant. It is viewed as normal and healthy. Pregnant women are forever being told they never looked better. They have that special glow.
Nora Feldman has that glow. She also has a special understanding of what has happened to her. She understands that people who force a pregnant woman to stop working are discriminating against her in the baset of ways: They are taking away her livelihood at a time when she is nurturing the life of another.