JetBlue Must Reinstate Flight Attendant Who Blew Safety Whistle (1)

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By John Herzfeld

JetBlue Corp. must reinstate a flight attendant who was fired after leaving a plane to raise safety concerns with a supervisor, a Labor Department agency said.

The preliminary reinstatement order takes effect right away, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The agency, which announced the action March 15, is responsible for evaluating whistleblower complaints filed under a host of federal laws.

The OSHA order also requires JetBlue to clear the flight attendant’s personnel file; post an employee notice on whistleblower rights; and pay $143,784 in back wages, compensatory damages, and attorneys’ fees. The order is appealable to the department’s Office of Administrative Law Judges, but an appeal wouldn’t delay the required reinstatement.

The case illustrates the legal and financial exposure employers can face from personnel actions involving employee whistleblower complaints.

JetBlue, in a statement, said the company will appeal the order.

“Safety is JetBlue’s top priority, and we would never terminate a crew member for raising a safety concern of any kind,” the company said. “While we do not discuss specifics of ongoing litigation, we strongly disagree with the interpretation of the Department of Labor in this instance. The circumstances leading to this termination involved a serious and clear violation of a FAA safety rule on the part of the crew member.”

The termination followed a July 2015 incident in which a passenger aboard a flight scheduled to leave from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport remarked about a perceived safety violation, the agency said.

Stepped Off, Made Call

The attendant left the plane and went onto the jetway—the portable passenger bridge by the door—to contact a supervisor for guidance on addressing the safety concern, the agency said. JetBlue fired the attendant two months later, in part for stepping off the plane and making the call from the jetway, it said.

An OSHA investigation concluded that the attendant’s whistleblower activity was a contributing factor in the termination. The activity was protected under the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century, the agency found.

Also known as AIR-21, the 2000 statute (P.L. 106-181) set airline safety requirements in response to 1990s airline crashes.

A redacted copy of the order wasn’t immediately available.

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