In May 2017, the Denver-based Frontier Airlines was sued by two female flight attendants who alleged that the airline did not provide sufficient maternity leave, nor appropriate facilities in which to pump breast milk. Both women had to take unpaid leave for significant periods of time in order to ensure their newborn children were well fed. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) took up the case, which remains under review as of this writing. The case begs a question that both employers and employees should ask: where is the line between ADA reasonable accommodation and unreasonable accommodation. When does an accommodation become unreasonable for an employer to deliver?
ADA Accommodation Regulations
Pregnancy is considered a temporary disability in many cases. As such, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) does apply in a case such as Frontier’s. The ADA states that a disabled worker is entitled to reasonable accommodations to assist them in performing the functions of their job. South Carolina’s law does prohibit discrimination against pregnant workers and those affected by disabilities related to pregnancy or childbirth, so a plaintiff bringing suit against a South Carolina company might conceivably have a case under either state or federal law if they could prove a pattern of discrimination.
Reasonable accommodations help level the proverbial playing field, so that an otherwise qualified disabled applicant or worker gets the same chance to excel as an able-bodied person. Past examples deemed reasonable include obtaining special equipment, changing the employee’s work schedule, providing an aide or interpreter, and making already-existing facilities accessible for the disabled person (for example, by putting in a wheelchair ramp). In the Frontier case, the plaintiffs sought appropriate facilities for pumping both in the air and on the ground, or alternatively, the option to temporarily accept work on the ground so as to avoid unpaid leave time.
What Is Reasonable Accommodation?
One important caveat that both employee and employer need to keep in mind regarding accommodations, however, is that not every request is reasonable, and its reasonableness or lack thereof will often depend on the situation of the employer. The ADA does not mandate that every employer make every requested accommodation. To do so would upset business owners and possibly create a backlash against hiring disabled or pregnant people in the future. What it does mandate is reasonable accommodation. The law defines reasonable accommodation as anything that does not create an undue hardship.
To be deemed an undue hardship, an accommodation must present “significant difficulty or expense” to the employer above what would be reasonable in the normal course of business, or it must adversely affect the employer’s production standard. For example, in the Frontier case, the airline might make the argument that the only place where one could conceivably pump breast milk on most airplanes would be in the restrooms, but to occupy them might create a problem for passengers. Since part of the job of a flight attendant is to cater to the passengers, it could plausibly be held to be an undue hardship to allow the pumping of breast milk on most Frontier airplanes.
Enlist An Experienced Attorney
Most pregnant and disabled workers simply want the chance to do their jobs well, but they cannot ignore their needs. Neither should employers. If you have been denied accommodations, the knowledgeable Charleston, SC employment law attorneys at Hitchcock & Potts can help.
Contact us today to set up an appointment.