Flight Attendants are Fighting a Culture of Harassment at American Airlines

There’s little that female candidates for public office can do when men post vile and harassing messages about them on social media. But when flight attendant Melissa Chinery’s male co-workers took to Facebook to make offensive and threatening comments about her when she ran to be president of the flight attendants’ union, she filed a sexual harassment grievance with her employer.

Instead of disciplining her harassers, however, American Airlines promoted them.

Two flight attendants have filed a lawsuit against American Airlines for fostering a culture of sexist online harassment among employees. (Kristoffer Trolle / Creative Commons)

Chinery and fellow AA flight attendant Laura Medlin have filed sexual harassment lawsuits against the airline for failing to respond to their complaints about male co-workers posting hundreds of derogatory messages about them on social media work group pages. They allege that male co-workers called them “c*nts,” a “flipper” (slang for prostitute) and a “sow.” One man posted a photo of a “bedazzled vagina.” Another wrote: “I can’t stand these crusty c*nts.”

Chinery first heard about the harassment from her flight service manager, but after filing her complaint, Chinery alleges that, after filing her complaint, she faced retaliation, including threats of discipline and repeated drug and alcohol tests. “My manager called me, then failed to take any action to stop the problem,” Chinery told SavvyStews. “No apologies from anyone, just an escalated attack.” AA’s Human Resources failed to even respond to Medlin’s complaints for many months.

Instead of disciplining the men, AA ultimately promoted two of them to positions in the training department. One is now working full time at American’s headquarters, training flight attendants for their annual airworthiness qualification, where he has the ability to pass or fail female flight attendants. The promotions gave another man access to Chinery and Medlin’s personal information and schedules; he knows where they are, what hotels they are staying in and other information that could compromise their safety.

Meanwhile, the men continue to insult their female co-workers on social media. At least 11 other American female flight attendants have reportedly been bullied and harassed by their male co-workers. This behavior was apparently not bad enough for George H.W. Bush-appointed Judge Eduardo C. Robreno to allow the case to go to trial. Robreno dismissed the combined suits in September, ruling that the behavior was not severe or pervasive; Chinery and Medlin have filed an appeal in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.

Unlike office workers, flight attendants don’t see each other every day, transforming social media into a main means of communication—the new “virtual water cooler,” where co-workers talk and exchange ideas. What happens on social media has a direct impact on employees’ work experience. “Given the unique nature of social media, the harassment our clients experienced was all-pervasive and impossible to escape,” Faye Riva Cohen, the women’s attorney, told the media. “We believe that the Judge failed to adequately consider the power of social media and its impact on the workplace.”

In addition to the harassment itself, American Airlines attorneys have subjected Chinery and Medlin to invasive demands for personal information—including their medical records, medications they take and medical conditions they have. They demanded records from a C-section, pap smears and mammograms. AA attorneys questioned the women about their finances and other personal matters, presumably hoping to dig up something shameful so they could pressure the women to drop the suit for fear the information would be made public; they even deposed Chinery’s 74-year old father.

The men, on the other hand, were protected, never having to produce any personal information in the lawsuit. Rather than protecting their female employees, AA’s former Chief Financial Officer invited them to his wedding.

Chinery and Medlin have spent decades working for American Airlines, but they have yet to receive so much as an apology for the harassment they have had to endure, and American has shared no plan with them to prevent this sort of behavior in the future. That means it’s up to all of the customers flying the word’s biggest airline to demand justice for its female employees.

If you fly American, contact the airline and ask them what they are doing to ensure that all women are treated respectfully in their workplace. Demand that they create a safe workplace, one that is free from gender-based hostility and harassment, and demand that the human resources staff respond promptly and effectively to complaints of harassment.

Do this for Chinery, Medlin and the thousands of women who work at American Airlines who can’t afford to fight back.

Carrie Baker is Professor and Director of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College.

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Comments

  1. American Airlines does not protect women in the workplace. Dan Cleverly and HR are a joke.

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