When started my career as a flight attendant, I never imagined that I wouldn’t be able to continue breastfeeding after I went back to work. I thought that, like most workplaces, my airline would be required by federal law to provide workers a clean, private place and breaks to pump at work. (That’s thanks to a provision known as the Break Time for Nursing Mothers law.)
But it turns out my employer isn’t. That’s because flight attendants are among the approximately 9 million women who are excluded from the law’s protection — along with other transportation workers, teachers, agricultural workers, nurses, and many others. A bill before Congress right now — the PUMP for Nursing Mothers Act — would fix that. Congress should act now to pass it.
I first realized the pickle I was in when I became pregnant with my first child and found out that my employer, Frontier Airlines, didn’t provide any accommodations for nursing moms. I’d watched other flight attendant moms trying to make it work pumping on the job — and I saw how stressful it was for them. They were too fearful of losing their paychecks to ask the airline to accommodate them. When some of my coworkers did ask for breaks and a place to pump, Frontier actually prohibited them from pumping at work, and even forced them off the job without a paycheck.
That was when I started to feel like Frontier was making me choose between my career and breastfeeding my baby. I believe breast milk is optimal for babies, and I wanted to give him those health benefits. At the same time, I didn’t feel great about pumping in an unsanitary airplane lavatory, and having to scramble to find time to pump between flights, especially given my unpredictable schedule. I was worried I’d lose my job if I had to pump on duty and got reported. Even though I desperately wanted to keep nursing my baby, I just couldn’t see how I could make it work. It was a wrenching decision, but I decided I had no choice but to give up breastfeeding in order to go back to work and support my family.
No woman should have to make that kind of decision. But because of the gap in coverage under the current law, too many of us still do.
The ACLU is representing me in a lawsuit arguing that Frontier’s treatment of pregnant and breastfeeding pilots and flight attendants is discriminatory. But if the airline had not been exempt from the duty under the existing federal Break Time Law to provide breaks and a clean place to pump, we probably would have never had to take Frontier to court over that in the first place.
The PUMP Act would give workers like me the protection we need: a clear requirement that all employers must provide workers who are nursing with the basic accommodations they need. Solutions exist in all industries — including airlines — that would allow employees to pump safely. And the bill would strengthen the law in other ways, extending protections from one year to two years, clarifying that it covers situations like adoption or stillbirth, and ensuring that when employers are not in compliance, there is a meaningful way to enforce it.
The bill has bipartisan support in Congress. Let’s make sure it becomes law so that all workers — no matter what industry they work in — have the choice to continue breastfeeding and the ability to get back to work.