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IFPTE News: Former SPEEA Employees Sue Spirit Airlines for Age Discrimination

Prompted from an initial investigation by SPEEA/IFPTE Local 2001, 24 older employees terminated by Spirit AeroSystems in July 2013 filed a major age discrimination class-action suit earlier this year in U.S. District Court.

The plaintiffs, all SPEEA-represented, filed the lawsuit on behalf of themselves and hundreds of older employees who worked at the Wichita facility.

The group’s legal team includes attorneys from AARP Foundation Litigation (AFL), a Washington, D.C.-based component of the AARP Foundation, the charitable arm of the nationwide older-people’s organization, AARP.

The suit, filed in the U.S District Court in Wichita, alleges Spirit terminated older employees covered by Spirit’s self-funded health insurance plan, who either had costly medical conditions or had family members with expensive health issues. Employee health issues cited in the lawsuit include heart disease, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, hearing loss, brain aneurysm and gout.

“Spirit’s treatment of older workers in its July 2013 RIF was unprecedented, unequal and unlawful,” said AARP Foundation Litigation’s senior attorney Dan Kohrman at a press conference after the filing on July 11. “Also, available data—including some Spirit did provide—show the company gave a disproportionate share of experienced workers, age 40+, low performance ratings, then fired them on that flawed basis.”

The termination included many employees who for years had been rated as top performers, according to the filing. Months before the terminations, Spirit revised its performance management and retention processes, resulting in hundreds of employees receiving significantly lower ratings. A disproportionate number of the lower ratings and subsequent designations went to employees ages 40 and over.

Weeks after the layoffs, Spirit held a job fair in Wichita and began recruiting and hiring new workers. According to the suit, the majority of the new workers—60 percent—were under age 40. Although many of the terminated workers later applied for job openings at Spirit, none were hired.

While 24 former employees are named in the filing, others are expected to join. Only 36 of the 200-plus SPEEA members who lost their jobs were under 40 at the time.

Three years after being terminated by Spirit, Craig TolMajor Breakthough in Legal Aid Lawyers’ Campaign for Collective Bargaining Rights son, 60, still found it difficult to talk about the day he was told he no longer worked at Spirit and was then ushered out the door. “I felt blindsided,” said Tolson, a procurement analyst with 35 years of service at the plant. “I liked my job. I was good at it. It’s just wrong. No hope. I was 57. It’s just not fair.”

Craig Hoobler was also caught by surprise after working in information technology at the Wichita plant for 34 years. “I was dedicated to the company,” said Hoobler. “I did a good job, and I was walked out the door.”

The suit challenges not only the terminations but also Spirit’s alleged blacklisting of those discharged from new job openings.

“Spirit blackballed the older workers who were fired in July 2013 while hiring for hundreds of positions over the next few years,” said attorney Diane King. “This layoff took place just after Spirit went “self-insured” and right when Spirit itself—not a health insurance firm—began paying its employees’ medical bills. Spirit clearly had a huge incentive to fire older workers with medical conditions—like the plaintiffs—who it assumed would cut into its bottom line. That was not only wrong, but also a violation of the plaintiffs’ civil rights.”

In addition to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) claims, some plaintiffs are bringing claims under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

This story is reprinted from IFPTE Outlook, the International union’s quarterly magazine. Click here to download the magazine.