- The Washington Times - Monday, October 18, 2010

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.

“Taking the maternity leave obviously affected the decision to give me more money,” she said in an interview with The Washington Times. “The culture inside the union is different than what they advocate for members.”

In addition to her lawsuit under the family leave act, she earlier filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charging discrimination because she is black.

She was the AFA’s only black attorney and said in her complaint that a white female supervisor with no children had received a raise. Since filing the complaint, she said, she had been excluded from meetings and from receiving routine office information.

Mrs. Lewis said the union, whose membership is largely female, had championed the family leave act and rights for working mothers.

For years, the AFA fought to get its members included in the federal medical leave bill that became law in 1993. The law said an employee needed to work at least 1,250 hours in the previous 12 months to qualify for benefits. While that was an easy threshold for most full-time workers in other industries, it was tough for flight attendants and pilots because they are paid only for their time in the air and usually fly 70 to 80 hours a month — too low to qualify under the original rules.

In December, after years of campaigning by the union, President Obama signed legislation to extend the benefits to flight crew members. At the time, the AFA said the legislation would ensure that flight crews were treated fairly and would be able to qualify for Family Medical Leave Act benefits.