May 3, 2017

Accommodating motherhood still a challenge for employers

airline pregnancy discrimination
When it comes to accommodating pregnant and nursing flight attendants and pilots, the airline industry is leaving some employees up in the air.

A flight attendant for a regional airline was recently paid $30,000 to settle a discrimination complaint alleging the airline failed to provide her with private space at work to pump breast milk.

The complaint, filed last year with the New York City Commission on Human Rights, claimed that the nearest private space was two terminals away – a distance that didn’t leave the breast-feeding flight attendant with enough time to pump during her break. As a result, the employee suffered emotional stress and lower milk production, according to a story in Fortune.

In addition to paying the flight attendant $30,000, the airline agreed to revise its employee accommodation policies, conduct staff training on its policies and post information on pregnancy and employment rights in its New York City offices.

The settlement follows another pregnancy discrimination lawsuit filed in May 2016 on behalf of four female pilots working for another airline. The women allege that the company discriminates against pilots who are pregnant or breast-feeding by not offering reasonable accommodations, such as temporary ground assignments or designated places where nursing pilots can pump.

The American Civil Liberties Union, who filed the suit, claims that the airline’s policies violate state and federal sex discrimination laws because “they treat pregnancy and breastfeeding less favorably than other medical conditions or disabilities and have a disproportionate effect on women.” The suit also alleges violations of the Colorado Workplace Accommodations for Nursing Mothers Act. The case is currently pending an investigation by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

The aviation industry is by no means unique in having its policies and attitudes toward accommodating pregnant and nursing employees put under scrutiny. Despite the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 – an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – which explicitly prohibits employment discrimination based on pregnancy, approximately 250,000 pregnant workers every year are denied requests for accommodations, according to Better Balance, a national work and family legal center focused on promoting fairness in the workplace. Better Balance says that number is low as many pregnant workers never ask for accommodations because they fear retaliation and being fired.

In 2012, the federal Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) was introduced in the House and Senate. The PWFA would require certain employers to make reasonable accommodations – such as providing light duty, a change in shifts or a different chair or desk –  for employees based on pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions.

While the federal PWFA remains in committee, 18 states and the District of Columbia have enacted their own version of the bill. In early April, the Massachusetts legislature announced it will again take up the PWFA this session. New York City, Philadelphia and Providence have already passed the bill.

States with a Pregnant Workers Fairness Act include:

District of Columbia
New Jersey
New York
North Dakota
Rhode Island
West Virginia

Traliant Insight
Employers in any industry can apply the lessons learned from the recent settlements involving pregnant or nursing aviation employees. When it comes to providing a healthy, safe and discrimination-free workplace for employees who are pregnant or new parents, organizations need to ensure they aren’t left on the runway.