For new moms, pumping breast milk at work gets tricky no matter what the job.
But for airline crew members like flight attendants and pilots, it’s an even more complicated task. Consider the logistics involved: Lactating women often have to pump every two to three hours to maintain their milk supply, and it’s a process that takes 20 minutes or more. There are little plastic parts like tubing and flanges that have to be cleaned. How do you carve out ample break time, not to mention a private space, when you’re confined to a cramped capsule in the sky for hours and hours?
Over the years, women crew members have quietly made it work. Flight attendants report pumping in airplane lavatories or rushing to airport bathrooms during quick turnarounds. Some pilots even say they’ve pumped in the cockpit, while flying the plane next to their male co-pilots.
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But in 2016, women at a few airlines started taking a bolder stance, arguing their employers should accommodate breastfeeding moms not only as a matter of company policy, but as a human right. Four female pilots, represented by the ACLU, sued Frontier Airlines for discrimination last May, and pilots at Delta Air Lines lobbied their male-dominated union to negotiate for paid maternity leave, so they could stay home to pump.
There was also a case that flew under the radar. A flight attendant for regional airline Endeavor Air, which most travelers know as Delta Connection, filed a discrimination complaint with the New York City Commission on Human Rights in February 2016. She alleged the company, which is wholly owned by Delta Air Lines, violated a city human rights law when it failed to provide her a private space to pump breast milk close to her work site.
Now this case has been settled—which is meaningful because it puts a dollar amount on the emotional damages a woman can claim when her employer doesn’t accommodate pumping on the job.
Endeavor Air has agreed to pay the flight attendant $30,000, including $20,000 for emotional distress and $10,000 for attorney fees. The company also agreed to revise its employee accommodation policies, train staff on its policies, and post information on pregnancy and employment rights in prominent locations in its New York City offices.
To be clear, it’s a settlement and not a ruling, meaning that Endeavor and Delta are not found guilty of any wrongdoing. As is typical with settlements, both the flight attendant and her lawyer are bound by a confidentiality clause and cannot discuss the case. But because the settlement was facilitated by a city agency, some of the complaint details and the terms of the settlement are now open to the public, and were provided by the Commission to Fortune.
A Delta spokesman noted that he could not comment specifically on the settlement, but in a statement emailed to Fortune, he said: "It is always Delta and Endeavor’s priority to provide a great place to work for our employees, including offering lactation rooms and other reasonable accommodation to new mothers and expectant mothers."
This case still doesn’t clear up how airlines should accommodate workers who may need to pump in-flight. But it does put airlines—and employers more generally—on notice that they may be on the hook financially for failing to provide places for women to pump.
"We hope this settlement sends a signal to all employers, including airlines, that they are required to give reasonable accommodations to their employees related to pregnancy and childbirth, and if not, they’re going to be responsible for the effects it has on that individual," said Katherine Greenberg, the Commission attorney who investigated the case.
According to the flight attendant’s complaint, she worked mostly from terminal 4, but the nearest private space provided by the company was two terminals away. Her breaks between flights weren’t long enough to enable her to walk 20-minutes there and back, and still have time to pump. She requested a closer private space, but the company initially denied her request, directing her instead to use an airport restroom or the staff lounge.
During the course of the investigation, the flight attendant testified to experiencing high levels of stress about how she would get to the other terminal in time, and she claims that stress resulted in lower milk production and interrupted milk flow. She also testified to feeling anxious and sick before trips.
The complaint was filed in February 2016, and initially, lawyers argued back-and-forth over the actual time it takes to walk from terminal 4 to terminal 2. In the meantime, Endeavor has also tried to remedy the situation by opening a new private lactation space closer to the flight attendant’s work site.
From the time the complaint was filed until a settlement was reached last month, 13 months passed, and now the flight attendant's baby is a two-year-old toddler. Breastfeeding accommodations are an area of law that is still relatively new, and the length of this particular investigation demonstrates why many women don’t bother to fight their employers in cases like this. By the time the complaint is resolved, their babies have grown and their breastfeeding days may be over.
The settlement also comes at a time when the airline industry is grappling with confusion on how to apply pregnancy accommodation rules to cabin crew. An Obama-era provision of the Affordable Care Act requires many U.S. workplaces to offer private, non-bathroom spaces for nursing or pumping, but the federal rules carved out several exemptions, including airlines.
Some local jurisdictions like New York City and 28 states, however, have their own pregnancy discrimination laws in place, and those rules tend to include fewer exemptions. It’s been unclear how such regional rules apply to airlines, whose cabin crews fly from city to city in a day’s work.
As for the cases still out there, the lawsuit filed by the four Frontier Airlines pilots is ongoing, pending an investigation from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Those pilots are seeking a change in Frontier's company policies that would allow pilots to be temporary re-assigned to ground jobs while pregnant or nursing.
Like most airlines, Frontier requires pregnant pilots to stop flying a couple months before a baby's due date. During that time, women are forced out on leave, forgoing their regular pay. The pilots argue this policy causes them financial harm and is discriminatory against pregnant employees.
Meanwhile, earlier this year, Delta expanded its leave policies for flight attendants and ground employees. These workers now qualify for six weeks paid maternity leave, as well as one month unpaid bonding leave for both male and female employees. The rules do not apply to Delta pilots, however, whose workplace policies are dictated by their union's collective bargaining agreement.
Just last month, Delta made Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For list for the first time. It was also the first airline to make the cut in a dozen years.
The New York City Commission on Human Rights encourages companies with New York City-based operations to read its official guidance on pregnancy discrimination laws, and asks workers who believe they’ve experienced discrimination to call 718-722-3131.