How did firing two FAs for “not doing their jobs” become a civil rights lawsuit in which United Airlines stands to lose $1.5MN?
Ruben Lee and Jeanne Stroup had been United flight attendants for over 35 years. But in September 2013 both were fired after watching a video together on an iPad during a flight from Denver to San Francisco and for failing to wear aprons during meal service.
They sued…on the grounds that they were fired due to their age. You can read their complaint here.
According to their complaint (which tells the story in a way most favorable to them), Supervisor Deepesh Bagwe observed the two watching an iPad and not wearing an apron while performing a secret and random audit of the flight. At the time, United had instituted an “Unannounced Excellence Review” program in order to encourage better service from FAs. Consequently, Bagwe was akin to a “mystery shopper” onboard the flight.
Soon thereafter, the FAs received a Letter of Charge from United…one step short of unpaid leave or termination. About a month later, United completed its investigation and via an AFA (union) representative, gave the FAs an ultimatum: retire immediately or be terminated and lose healthcare and pass travel privileges.
The FAs retired.
Essentially, both FAs boasted a stellar work record prior to this incident. They alleged that United specifically targeted them for investigation because of their age. Furthermore, they argued that watching iPads after the initial meal service was not prohibited.
Jury Sides with FAs
The crux of the case turned on the plaintiff’s argument that United had no system for determining discipline levels for rule-breaking. Instead, the severity of an infraction was at the discretion of the supervisor.
The jury bought this argument. United also hurt its case greatly thanks to poor witnesses.
Attorney David Lane, who represented the FAs, boasted of one particular encounter to Westword:
Lane put a supervisor on the witness stand, he recalls, “and I said, ‘In the hierarchy of rule violations, these are pretty ticky-tacky.’ He said, ‘I don’t agree.’ I said, ‘For example, watching an iPad for a few minutes is certainly less serious than lighting a campfire in the bathroom of a flight when it’s at 35,000 feet.’ And he said, ‘No, I disagree with that.’ I said, ‘Seriously? You think lighting a campfire in the bathroom is as serious as watching an iPad for a few minutes?’ And he said, ‘Yes.'”
How did the jury respond to this assertion? “Oh, my God,” Lane replies. “They just rolled their eyes and sat back in their seats.”
It took the jury only a few hours to award the FAs $800,000 in backpay. Now a judge must calculate “front pay” and legal fees, likely to push damages to over $1.5MN.
Absent the (unpublished) court transcripts, I’m actually conflicted about the lawsuit and not in position to fully express my opinion. On the one hand, this sort of behavior reinforces a culture of mediocrity. The AFA is a powerful union and likely would not present two member FAs with such an ultimatum if totally unwarranted. But on the other hand, FAs are contractually entitled to fair and consistent disciplinary procedures. Further, watching an iPad is not the problem if they were otherwise following service protocols (checking on cabin every 15 minutes). In any case, I think the charge of ageism is absurd and this case makes United far less likely to go after FAs for real infractions.
(H/T View from the Wing)
What will happen now is that whenever this situation arises again with older employees, there will need to be equal action against younger employees and they’ll most likely stretch a bit more to find someone at the lower end to chop with them.
I side with UA on this as I generally view FA’s at all US airlines to be quite lazy, especially on long haul flights. They usually serve dinner as fast as possible and then read a book in the galley for the next several hours and can’t be bothered while doing so
What law firm/attorney represented United?
Large corporations have their own in-house counsel.
Terrible decision making by UA… The more appropriate grounds for termination should have been focused on FA performance not what they are doing.
1. Did they fail to provide the level of service as outlined in SOP?
2. Were there moments where customers wanted a drink refill or the cabinet was neglected for period of time?
3. Did the FA fail to answer onboard calls (i.e. pilots) in a timely manner?
4. Did the FA echo the corporate values and service standards in their service?
5. Etc etc.
If nothing is outlined or specified then revise the flight SOP to outline what FAs are expected to do in between services such as cleaning up galley, performing inventory, coordinating meal services for pilots, cleaning the lavatories, walking down the aisle every 10-15 minutes for drink refills/trash pick up, etc.
Focus on core tasks and if they failed to perform a specific duty because they were watching on iPad (i.e. prioritizing downtime over performing duties) then focus on the performance failure itself not the fact they were watching on the iPad.
The mystery shopper employee and the individual who handled the investigation should be fired. SOP should be revised to better outline standards, expectations, and work flow (both during service and in between service).
Watching something on the iPad who cares – for all we know they could be watching a speech on the intranet by Oscar Munoz and that would be work related.
I agree, the ageism argument is rubbish. However, being fired or forced to retire for what they did was also unwarranted if they didn’t have a history of doing this prior.
This says a lot about the quality of management at United. For how many years now have they faced age discrimination as a possible issue? And they have a unionized workforce. So it seems that only a hopeless idiot would NOT have a very clear process for terminations in such cases, and be able to clearly articulate that. Instead, they just stumble through the whole thing and get their heads handed to them. Pathetic really…
When the call button goes unanswered there is every chance it’s because a few of the lazy dinosaurs are watching Keeping Up With The Kardashians on an iPad.
And shareholders/travelers have to put up with this crap.
First step should have been a warning without any escalation. Instead, UA blew through that.
Over a million bucks for “back pay,” “front pay,” and “legal fees?” Sometimes I simply don’t understand America.