Delta Air Lines Employees In Seattle Claim They Were Fired For “Speaking Korean”, Turns Out They Violated Upgrade/Ticketing Rules

A group of Delta Air Lines airport employees in Seattle-Tacoma were terminated after flouting company rules of how and when to upgrade passengers on flights yet they claim the reason was of a more personal nature.

The group of four women now claim they were fired because they were speaking in their native language (Korean) and also allege sexual misconduct by a local supervisor.

This entire story simply didn’t fit together from the start but when more and more details came out related to the case it started to make a little more sense.

The local news station KIRO 7 (access here) has a comprehensive summary of what happened up in Seattle.

Ji-Won Kim, Lilian Park, Jean Yi and Jongjin An have a combined total of 50 years of experience working for Delta Airlines at Sea-Tac Airport.

“I treated all Delta passengers as my family – brothers and sisters, parents,” Park told KIRO 7.
“Everything came from the heart.” …

All four women believe their fluency in the Korean language was one of the reasons they were all hired by Delta, which flies daily between Sea-Tac and South Korea. According to Yi, Korean-speaking passengers “were so glad to see me. They say, ‘Oh I feel so comfortable. You know, they don’t speak English.’” All worked in customer service as desk and gate agents, “helping people, helping passengers” An said.

However, all of them were fired by Delta in May 2017.

According to a lawsuit filed recently in King County Superior Court, “though assigned to work flights to and from Korea, composed of many Korean-speaking passengers, they were singled out and admonished for speaking Korean.”

An said she was told by her Delta manager there were complaints “from the other non-Korean-speaking agents. They feel uncomfortable, so please limit speaking Korean.” But the women – who are all over 40 and all plaintiffs in the lawsuit – claim other foreign language-speaking Delta employees were never told to limit their speech and that only the Korean speakers were.

I highly doubt that a company like Delta would terminate someones employment for occasionally speaking in his native language. I could indeed see this becoming a problem though if a small group of employees build their own clique and constantly speak in their own language next to other employees, especially if those colleagues feel that the talk is gossiping and bickering behind their back (even if it’s unsubstantiated).

But the matter continues:

Kim, Park, Yi and An also claim to have been sexually harassed by the same Delta employee, numerous times, on the job.

“I tried to avoid touching,” Yi told KIRO 7. “So when he came to the gate, I just moved out of sight. I didn’t want to deal with him touching, whispering.” “It was a daily thing” for the agent to touch her, Park said. She and Kim reported the unwanted touching to Delta supervisors and said they were promised another incident would get the male gate agent fired.

“That agent is still working there and the touching has not stopped,” their attorney, Jennifer Song, said.

“We also suspect that their termination is related to the reporting of sexual harassment.”

According to Song, who works at the Law Offices of Judith A. Lonnquist in Seattle, “I thought this was a pretty clear case of discrimination.” The lawsuit alleges “race and national origin discrimination and retaliation.”

The airport is a place with CCTV all over the place. I simply can’t imagine someone being stupid enough to engage in such conduct in a controlled environment like that, especially after being reprimanded by management and the employees themselves. Delta apparently investigated the case as well and nothing came about the matter (see their statement below).

But one small – or not so small – detail can’t be overlooked:

The complaint for damages also reveals the women “were suspended and ultimately terminated for allegedly offering unauthorized upgrades.” The woman said those upgrades are standard.

“Offering free upgrades, especially on an oversold flight, is a common practice” Kim said, “but suddenly, it became a reason to be terminated, just for us, for Korean women.”

Song described the behavior for which the women were terminated as “a common occurrence on over-sold flights. Other agents do it, on a daily basis.”

This is where things get a bit nebulous because it sounds a lot of what we call ‘gate agent shenanigans’ and most of the time these upgrades we’re talking about here are not going to regular customers in a priority sequence but to Friends & Family, be it on revenue fares or company issued standby tickets. In other words: Corruption and flouting the rules!

I’ve seen this happening multiple times not in particular with Delta but I remember that United in SFO was notorious for this kind of conduct in the 2000s to the point of where people said “if you’re still waitlisted for an upgrade don’t bother flying through San Francisco because these gate agents are manipulating the upgrade process to benefit friends&family” especially on flights to Asia. This was all well documented on Flyertalk at the time.

What does Delta have to say about all this?

“Delta does not tolerate workplace discrimination or harassment of any kind. Such behavior runs counter to our core values of diversity and inclusion and our mission of connecting the world.
“We take allegations of workplace harassment and discrimination very seriously and our investigations into allegations made by these former employees were found to be without merit.
“These former employees were unfortunately but appropriately terminated because the company determined they violated ticketing and fare rules.
Delta is confident that these claims will ultimately be determined to be without merit.”

I’m generally skeptical when it comes to big corporations trying to weasel out of a discrimination claim or any lawsuit for that matter but this appears to make much more sense than the story brought forward by the employees.

 

There are many complaints in this one lawsuit and it’s hard to determine the merits of these individual points but the points brought forward by the employees don’t seem to stick. Delta and all other airlines employ people from so many countries, it makes no sense that they would fire someone for occasionally speaking their native language.

Conclusion

In order to maintain a comfortable work environment it’s essential that colleagues don’t feel they’re being gossiped about so having a policy of speaking English in general isn’t too outlandish even if this was a substantiated claim.

The sexual harassment part of said gate agent is probably the only legitimate point that warranted investigation but again I can’t see why Delta would go through the trouble of firing four good workers, exposing themselves to legal action when they could just terminate that one offender who damages company reputation.

The “unauthorized upgrades” are a problem and it’s very easy to reconcile what an agent did during a flight once an internal investigation occurs. In just a little time it’s possible to create a clear picture when filtering all the upgrades one agents login processed and then one can look at the passenger list and flight data to see if that upgrade was actually warranted and processed in the correct priority sequence.

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