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Uniformed Service Pilots Sue Delta Over 'Anti-Military Corporate Culture'

Four uniformed service pilots have filed a proposed class action lawsuit that claims defendant Delta Air Lines, Inc., as part of an alleged “anti-military corporate culture,” engages in a wide-ranging, systemic pattern of harassment against pilots with military service obligations. Delta Air Lines’ alleged conduct, the 44-page lawsuit says, violates the federal Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA), which expressly prohibits discrimination against individuals because of their service in the armed forces. 

“Section 4316 of USERRA provides that any period of absence from employment due to or necessitated by uniformed service is not considered a break in employment, so an employee absent due to military duty must be treated as though they were continuously employed,” the lawsuit says.

Delta’s Alleged Corporate Culture

According to the complaint, the goal of Delta’s “culture of discrimination” is to intimidate and inconvenience pilots so they perform less military service or, worse, leave the uniformed services all together. This is evident in the company’s alleged on-the-books policies concerning pilots with military responsibilities, which the case says “prohibit pilots from performing any military obligations on the same calendar day they may have obligations to [Delta], even if those military service obligations do not interfere with or conflict with” a pilot’s work schedule. Bafflingly, these “same-calendar-day” prohibitions appear to be in place even if the individual were not to miss work for a military obligation, according to the suit.

How Delta Allegedly Handles Pilots Who Request Military Leave

What happens when a pilot’s uniformed service duties conflict with Delta’s hardline stance? According to the suit, Delta’s management may, among other punishments:

  • Place “onerous restrictions” on military leave by mandating that an employee request military leave that he or she may not even be “awarded”
  • Chastise a pilot who takes “short notice” military leave if the individual were to submit a leave notice after Delta’s “deadline for monthly schedule bidding”
  • Refuse a pilot’s military leave request until after that pilot has submitted his or her military orders (even though no documentation may be required under USERRA)
  • Outright deny a pilot’s military leave request
  • Request that a pilot produce documentation above and beyond what is called for under USERRA
  • Place a pilot on administrative leave or fire the employee for not providing enough documented evidence of military service
  • Accuse pilots of engaging in fraudulent activity “simply because they may have performed military service on days when they were on sick leave”

It is worth noting that from here the complaint rattles off at least nine other tactics Delta allegedly employs on pilots whose uniformed service obligations purportedly disrupt its business.

Delta’s Alleged Failure to Make Pension Contributions Following Military Absences

The named plaintiffs—pilots for the Indiana Air National Guard, Florida Air National Guard, United States Navy, and United States Air Force—all describe similarly hostile experiences with Delta in the complaint. To a man, the pilots allege they were “repeatedly harassed” by Delta management in response to their military leave duties. Upon returning from certain periods of military leave, the pilots claim Delta not only harassed them by aggressively investigating their use of military leave, but then refused to make contributions to their pension funds, a denial of basic employment benefits that does not jibe with USERRA regulations, according to the suit.

Additional Instances of Pilot Harassment from the Suit

One plaintiff, who currently holds the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Florida Air National Guard, claims Delta aimed to terminate his employment after it attempted to poke holes in his reported service obligations.

“On or about December 11, 2015, [Delta] formally notified [the plaintiff] that [Delta] was engaged in an ongoing investigation into [his] use of military leave. This investigation focused on [the plaintiff’s] Concurrent Duty, but at the time the term used by [Delta] was ‘double dipping.’ On or about July 10, 2016, [the plaintiff] was instructed to report to [Delta] to be terminated that day, in accordance with a previous Notice of Intent to Terminate, due to his military service obligations. The July 2016 Notice of Intent to Terminate was rescinded, and abuse of sick time was added to the military leave accusations in all later correspondence.”

Although this plaintiff’s Notice of Intent to Terminate was pulled back by Delta, the case continues, he was still fired because of his service obligations.

Another plaintiff—a Lieutenant Commander in the United States Navy until his retirement on January 31, 2017— claims he experienced similar hardship at the hands of the airline. The complaint says that Delta “refused to accept” documentation provided by the plaintiff evidencing his military leave periods and placed the man on involuntary unpaid leave “pending an investigation” into his service time.

The United States Air Force plaintiff, however, may have seen the worst of Delta’s attitude toward military leave, according to the complaint. After a meeting regarding—surprise—a Notice of Intent to Terminate once he returned from duty, the plaintiff claims Delta left him a voicemail saying he had 24 hours to resign his employment and that, if he did resign, the company would not contact his military unit. One can easily surmise where the conversation went from there:

“In this same voice mail, [Delta] management threatened that if [the plaintiff] did not voluntarily resign, then ‘all bets are off, including contact with the military.’ Such inappropriate contact would directly jeopardize [the plaintiff’s] security clearances and thus his military employment, along with his ability to be hire at other commercial air carriers,” the lawsuit says.

The Proposed Class

The proposed class includes all pilots who are or were employed by Delta Air Lines and were or are members of the U.S. Armed Services or National Guard who took military leave from April 16, 1998 to the present.

The full complaint can be read below.

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