An international union of airline flight attendants that fought for 16 years to get a federal law extended to its members giving employees time off for the birth and care of the newborn child has been accused of retaliating against one of its senior employees for taking maternity leave.
Stephani Lewis, a senior attorney for the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), has filed a federal lawsuit claiming she was denied a promotional pay raise after she told her bosses she was pregnant and would be taking maternity leave under the Federal Family and Medical Leave Act.
Mrs. Lewis, a staff attorney for the union since 1996, said she began experiencing “a hostile work environment” after telling her bosses in August 2009 that she was pregnant with her fourth child and would be taking maternity leave in the new year. The act, among other things, says employers must grant an eligible employee up to 12 workweeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period for the birth and care of the newborn child.
The AFA, which is part of the 700,000-member Communications Workers of America, is the world’s largest labor union organized by flight attendants for flight attendants, representing more than 50,000 flight attendants at 22 airlines.
Mrs. Lewis, who is married and did receive her leave, said she never got the promised raise, according to the lawsuit she filed late last month in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.
“It is hypocritical for union leaders who are charged with enforcing employee rights that in this particular instance they don’t recognize the rights of one of their own,” said Mrs. Lewis’ attorney, Roland J. Atkins, a Philadelphia lawyer. He said it was “ironic” that a union that fought to extend the medical leave act to its members would retaliate against an employee for exercising her rights under the act.
The union, which has not responded in court to the lawsuit, denies the allegations.
“The allegations in the complaint are false and there have been no violations of the law with regard to Ms. Lewis,” said Edward Gilmartin, the AFA’s general counsel and her boss.
Mrs. Lewis, who worked as a flight attendant before attending law school, said in her lawsuit that in July 2009 her “superior performance” got her a promotion to the position of the union’s associate general counsel, a post in which she would supervise nine attorneys as well as handle her own caseload.
She said she was promised a modest increase in six months of $4,089 annually in salary over what her predecessor had been paid because her responsibilities would be greater. She said she never got the raise.
Two and a half weeks after getting the promotion, she said, she told her supervisors that she was pregnant and would be taking maternity leave in the new year.
In her lawsuit, she said Mr. Gilmartin showed his displeasure by “snidely” commenting, “Well, it is your prerogative to have children.”
She said that during an evening reception at the union’s board of directors meeting in April, Mr. Gilmartin asked — with union employees and members standing nearby — whether she and her husband intended to have a fifth child, adding that he was a “fifth child and was a great mistake.”
She said in the lawsuit that other staffers also made sarcastic comments about her being pregnant again.
Mrs. Lewis said her working conditions became so “unbearable” that she was forced to seek treatment for high blood pressure and chronic anxiety. After she returned from maternity leave in May, she said, she asked about the raise and was told by AFA President Patricia Friend that the union board had decided to not give raises.