In the months after her daughter was born, Jo Roby faced a serious dilemma: She wanted to provide her infant daughter with breast milk, but Frontier Airlines — where she’d worked as a flight attendant for more than a decade — forbids employees from pumping breast milk during flights.
To avoid health complications and keep her daughter supplied with milk, Roby, who lives in Boise, Idaho, needed to be able to pump every three or four hours. But long, 10-hour days in the air with unpredictable flight schedules made that goal nearly impossible.
Roby resorted to pumping whenever she could. Sometimes that meant sitting on the floor of a family bathroom at Denver’s airport (the airline’s home base) before flights. Other times, when she had no other choice, it meant stepping inside an unsanitary airplane lavatory and pumping as quickly as she could, while she tried to avoid touching anything that might contaminate her baby’s milk.
When she couldn’t pump, Roby told The Washington Post, she continued to work despite risking infection and enduring physical pain from engorgement.
“I want to be able to provide my child with breast milk because it’s very nutritious and it’s recommended by pediatricians and the World Health Organization,” Roby said. “It’s sad to me that Frontier isn’t more supportive of the fact that I want to provide for my daughter at the same time that I keep my career.
“Both are possible — it doesn’t need to be one or the other,” she added.
But right now it is one or the other, and Roby has chosen her child’s health over her work at the low-cost airline. In a sexual discrimination complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission this week, Roby claims that Frontier Airlines refused multiple requests to provide her with “on-the-job accommodations.” Instead, she says, she was granted unpaid medical leave this year, which she remains on today.
Roby is one of two flight attendants who have filed complaints in recent days alleging that “Frontier is systematically failing to accommodate the needs of its pregnant and breast-feeding flight attendants.” The other complaint was filed by a flight attendant named Stacy Schiller.
The complaints state that Frontier does not offer its employees maternity leave and instead requires parents to use accrued sick or vacation days.
“They’re both on unpaid medical leave so that they can breast-feed,” said Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “They are home because they’re unready to give up breast-feeding, which they would have had to do to return to work because of Frontier’s failure to provide necessary accommodations to allow them to express breast milk on the job.”
Roby’s complaint alleges that Frontier supervisors denied her request to pump via email, writing that she was forbidden to pump “on duty, on the ground or in flight, ‘for safety and the safety of others.’ ”
Both women claim the airline has ignored numerous requests seeking clarification of the airline’s policies and generally refused to help them alter their schedules to accommodate their parenting needs. The work-related conflict, Roby claims, has left her stressed, anxious and financially damaged.
The airline did not respond to multiple requests seeking comment about the complaints, but it did release a statement to NBC News saying that the company’s policies comply with state and federal law.
“Our policies and practices comply with all federal and state laws as well as with the relevant provisions of the collective bargaining agreement between Frontier and its flight attendant group,” the statement said, according to NBC News. “We have made good-faith efforts to identity and provide rooms and other secure locations for use by breast-feeding flight attendants during their duty travel.”
The complaints arrive a year after a veteran Frontier pilot named Randi Freyer filed a complaint with the EEOC making similar discrimination claims. She was joined by three other female pilots working for Frontier, all of whom alleged that the airline made it “extremely difficult” for them to continue breast-feeding once they returned to work from maternity leave.
The complaint also said Frontier failed to provide its employees with a private pumping area, a violation of Colorado’s Workplace Accommodations for Nursing Mothers Act.
All of the complaints were filed with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union and the law firm Holwell Shuster & Goldberg.
The complaints also accuse Frontier of enacting policies that violate the laws of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the anti-discrimination law, which states that “women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes.”
Roby and Schiller’s complaints argue that Frontier should provide employees with locations to pump on flights and at airports around the country. Even if they get their wish, Freyer noted, it may not be enough.
A year after filing her own complaint, the Frontier pilot and mother of two said the airline has provided her with a list of about 25 locations where she’s allowed to pump, very few of which have made her struggle much easier.
Because she’s still not allowed to pump on Frontier airplanes while they’re flying, she ends up pumping in cramped, dirty maintenance closets, random offices that offer little privacy and germ-infested restrooms — even in the cockpit, depending on the demands of her flying schedule.
Like her co-workers, she said, one of her biggest challenges is keeping her milk sanitary and avoiding infections that result from going long periods without pumping.
“Every day is different,” she said. “I’ll show up to these makeshift rooms and sometimes people don’t know why I’m there or where I’m allowed to go inside. Crazy and sometimes it’s embarrassing.”
Even so, Freyer said, she has no plans to give up.
“I feel proud that I am able to nurse for my kid and I will bend over backward to do this,” she said. “There are hoops and challenges, but this is for my child’s health and I’ll endure whatever it takes.”