This airline was forced to end pregnancy tests for employees

When you’re applying for a job, you may have to complete specific employer requests. A background check? Fine. Provide references? Cool. Take a drug test? Alright.

But…take a pregnancy test?

One airline tried that, and has been mired in controversy ever since.

This week, Iberia airlines, which is based in Spain, announced that it would no longer require its female job candidates to take a pregnancy test. What’s behind the decision? Well, the company was fined 25,000 euros, or $28,000, for gender discrimination, according to The New York Times.

Although the airline will not appeal the fine, Iberia defended its practice, saying it was for the safety of its employees so that employees would not be assigned tasks that endangered their health or that of the fetus. Doctors advise pregnant women not to fly in their final trimester due to medical risks like blood clots and deep vein thrombosis from cabin pressure. After Ladders contacted Iberia, the airline’s press office said it was specifically following a Spanish royal decree, which limits the activities pregnant workers can do. Under the decree, pregnant workers cannot be exposed to heavy manual labor, extreme noise, cold and heat and non-iodizing radiation.

There are additional reasons that the airline may have wanted to limit pregnant women from flying. Iberia says that it applies International Air Transport Association rules to employees. On page 37 of its medical manual, the IATA suggests cautions for pregnant women in order to avoid the effects of “cosmic radiation.” Long-haul flights expose flyers to cosmic radiation, which cannot be shielded like X-rays can; the only way to reduce it, the IATA suggest, is by reducing the altitude of the entire plane.

The IATA says regulations “requires airlines to reduce the dose [of cosmic radiation] received by the foetus to a level ‘as low as reasonably achievable’. As a result, a number of European airlines have made the decision to assign all female flight and cabin crew members to ground duties on declaration of pregnancy.” Iberia said cabin crew members get reassigned when they tell the airline they are pregnant.

Research says, however, that flight attendants don’t have miscarriages any more often than teachers do.

In a statement, the airline said it “will no longer include the pregnancy test in the medical examination prior to the hiring that was only done to ensure that they were not at risk.”

“There is no reason to justify it”

But the Balearic Islands government and union officials weren’t buying Iberia’s justification. One of Spain’s major labor unions, the Unión General de Trabajadores, issued a clear rebuke of the policy: “In no case can this information be requested from a person who aspires to be an airline worker and there is no reason to justify it.”

Iberia said that this medical test was one of many for its job applicants, and had no bearing on the company’s hiring decisions.

A twist: Iberia said that it “always” hires pregnant women who meet the company’s job requirements.

As an example, the company cited how last year it hired five pregnant women for its handling division. The only pregnant applicant who got rejected was because she failed a plane-driving test, not because she was pregnant, Iberia said.

The case, however, hinged on a simple standard: there was no way a male employee could take the same test.

Airlines in general are struggling with gender discrimination issues related to their employees. In April, two female Aeroflot flight attendants sued the Russian carrier for enforcing a weight and appearance guideline. The flight attendants who failed this test were pulled from doing prestigious international long-haul flights and had their pay docked.

Aeroflot won both court cases. “Aeroflot is a premium airline and part of the reason people pay for tickets is the appearance of its employees,” Aeroflot’s public council member Pavel Danilin said in its unapologetic defense.

In May, two Frontier flight attendants sued their airline because they said they were not allowed to pump breast milk on duty. The flight attendants were required to work 10-12 hour shifts but were not given the time or space to pump milk, the federal complaint alleged.

And United faced resistance earlier this year when it was revealed that the airline has a dress-code policy of banning leggings for employees and their relatives. Since men don’t wear leggings, many complained that the policy was biased.

An employment offer that’s conditional upon you being pregnant is explicitly against the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s mandate that pregnant applicants “must be treated in the same manner as other applicants or employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work.”