American Airlines Gets A Pass On "Discriminatory" Retirement Package
Federal judge dismisses lawsuit by older flight attendants who claimed they had no choice but to retire in the early days of the pandemic
It’s hard not to sympathize with American Airlines’ older flight attendants.
In the early days of the pandemic, American discouraged them from using personal protective equipment (including masks) and denied their requests for leaves of absence.
In March 2020, health organizations reported older workers were at far greater risk of serious injury or death due to COVID-19. The first COVID vaccine would not be cleared for emergency use until December of that year. And 95% of travelers were afraid to fly.
More than 800 flight attendants - 94% of whom were aged 60 and above - jumped at the chance to retire when American unveiled what it said would be its only offer of a voluntary early retirement program in March 2020.
The problem is that five months later, American offered a better voluntary early retirement package as an incentive to get younger flight attendants to retire. American added flexible healthcare spending benefits and roundtrip flight passes that were not offered in the earlier package.
About 600 recipients of the original package filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA).
U.S. District Judge Beth Labson Freeman of the Northern District of California recently dismissed the lawsuit at its earliest stage.
She ruled Americans’ early retirement program was a “benefit” that could not support a discrimination claim under the ADEA and that the conditions faced by the flight attendants at the time were not so adverse that a “ “competent, diligent and reasonable” employee would feel compelled to retire.
Some may recall that in the early days of the pandemic the vast majority of federal courts effectively shut down, halting jury trial and requiring the electronic filing of documents. This was due in no small part to America’s decidedly older federal judiciary’s fear of COVID-19.
Yet, Judge Freeman, who is in her late 60s, showed little sympathy for the older flight attendants, who introduced evidence of significantly higher fatality rates in March 2020 for people aged 60 and over who contracted COVID-19.
Perhaps the most baffling aspect of Judge Freeman’s ruling involved American’s policy of discouraging mask wearing by flight attendants.
Judge Freeman said American’s position discouraging mask use by flight attendants “was not inconsistent with [the Centers for Disease Control] at the time, and thus a “reasonable” person would not feel “compelled to resign” under American’s policy.
Judge Freeman fails to note the CDC on Jan. 29, 2021 issued a mask mandate requiring people to wear masks in public transportation hubs and on most forms of public transportation. The CDC continues to recommend that people wear masks in indoor public transportation settings.
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