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United Airlines Hit With Bias Suit Over Sports Charter Staffing

Law360 (September 14, 2020, 6:04 PM EDT) — Two longtime United Airlines flight attendants have accused the company of almost exclusively using young, white and blond-haired female attendants to staff lucrative charter
flights for professional and college sports teams, according to a discrimination suit filed in California state court.
Kim Guillory, who is Black, and Sharon Tesler, who is Jewish, say they were unfairly prevented from booking themselves onto charters transporting NFL, MLB and NCAA teams because of their racial and ethnic
backgrounds, as well as being “over age 39,” according to their complaint filed on Thursday.
Charter flights for sports teams are highly coveted by flight attendants because they offer better wages and nicer hotel accommodations, and often result in free tickets to high-profile games like the Super Bowl, field
access passes and merchandise, according to the complaint.
“The company’s assignment of flight attendants for charter flights arranged by dozens of professional and collegiate American sports teams is based entirely and unlawfully on age, race and ancestry, gender, and
physical appearance,” the women said in their complaint.

“United Airlines has not only demeaned its hardworking and long-standing loyal employees, but created an egregious workplace culture in which discrimination, harassment, and retaliation have taken root and flourished.”
United has about three dozen sports team charters that it staffs with two types of employees: Inflight Charter Coordinators who serve as a concierge of sorts for the customer, and “dedicated crews” of flight attendants who
work continuously for a particular charter customer for the season, Guillory and Tesler claim.

Although teams have the option of choosing an “open time crew,” which allows any available flight attendant to work any charter flight and results in more diverse crews, United “encourages the majority of its customers” to
go with the dedicated crew option, according to the complaint.

This practice has led to many charter customers, including the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, the Los Angeles Rams, the Kansas City Chiefs and the New Orleans Saints, to fly with dedicated crews of almost exclusively young,
blond-haired, blue-eyed women, Guillory and Tesler say. It also results in less experienced flight attendants beating out more senior attendants, like Guillory and Tesler, for the sought-after charter flight spots, they say. Tesler has been with United since 1986, and Guillory has been with Continental Airlines, which merged with United in 2013, since 1992, according to the suit.

Both Guillory and Tesler say they were blocked from booking themselves onto charter flights listed on United’s open time market. When they complained, United told them that the teams themselves were dictating which flight attendants they wanted on the charter and there was nothing the company could do, according to the suit. United Airlines on Monday denied that the charter program is in any way discriminatory based on age, race or gender, telling Law360 that flight attendant eligibility for charter flights is based entirely on performance and attendance records.

“United Airlines is proud of our track record on diversity, equity and inclusion,” spokesman Frank Benenati said. “While we cannot comment on this ongoing litigation, the flight attendants included in our sports team charter program are largely representative of our overall flight attendant population in regards to age and race.”

Benenati said the average age of the charter program’s flight attendants is 46 and the average seniority is 19/years. He also said that the percentage of Black flight attendants in United’s sports team charter program is higher than in the company’s overall flight attendant population.

Both Guillory and Tesler say they made multiple inquiries about the issue over the past few years, and have made complaints to management about their inability to book charter flights. Tesler alleges she was told that eligibility for the flights had nothing to do with seniority and was based “solely” on “likeability.” According to Guillory, the company retaliated against her by rejecting her for a promotion for which she hadn’t
even completed the application, and by subjecting her to “meritless discipline” that included an involuntary twomonth medical leave in 2019 — nearly a year after she was cleared by her doctor to return to work following a 2017 injury.

Meanwhile, Tesler’s application for an Inflight Charter Coordinator role was ignored entirely, she says. Tesler also claims that she has witnessed “multiple incidents” of discrimination against Jewish people by her
colleagues, including disparaging comments about Jewish and Israeli passengers on flights to and from Tel Aviv being “horrible” and “entitled,” jokes that play into harmful stereotypes about Jews being “cheap,” and
difficulties securing kosher meals. She has been told by colleagues that her dark hair makes her “look Jewish,” and early on in her employment
with United was told to cut her hair because the company did not allow “wispies,” Tesler alleges.

“Because of the treatment of Jewish passengers, and her own experience early in her career with United, Ms. Tesler has become hesitant to reveal that she is Jewish, for fear of experiencing further harassment,” the suit
Guillory and Tesler are bringing discrimination, racial harassment and retaliation claims against United under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. The two are seeking injunctive relief and monetary damages,
among other remedies. Counsel for the flight attendants did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The plaintiffs are represented by Angela Alioto and Jordanna G. Thigpen of the Law Offices of Joseph L. Alioto and Angela Alioto. Counsel information for United Airlines was not available on Monday.

The case is Guillory et al. v. United Airlines Inc., case number 20-CIV-03889, in the Superior Court of the State of California, County of San Mateo.

–Editing by Nicole Bleier.