Fouling the Air

Employees say Northwest Airlines works harder to avoid discrimination lawsuits than it does to stop bigotry

Joe King believed he would spend the rest of his working life employed by Northwest Airlines' ground-services division at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. For three years the 48-year-old, toothpick-thin black man, who had previously worked in construction, moved oversize cargo onto Northwest's departing planes--everything from golf clubs to wheelchairs. "Cats, dogs, whatever," King explains with a laugh. "I've dealt with eagles, you name it."

The physically demanding job paid $10.50 an hour, a raise was imminent, and there were plenty of perks, such as a flexible schedule, and the airline's generous travel program--allowing employees and their immediate family to travel anywhere in the United States for $20.

Together, Joe and his wife Diane, who works for a delivery service, were beginning to enjoy the spoils of a middle-class life in the Minneapolis suburbs. Their two kids attend good public schools, and last year the family began looking at lots on which to build a home. But in less time than it takes to deplane, the Kings' American dream was grounded. On July 6, 2000 Cheri Lindgren, manager of customer service at Northwest, handed Joe King his walking papers. According to a letter from Lindgren, the reason for his termination was "unsatisfactory attendance." (Lindgren did not return calls seeking comment.)

King tells a different story. He says that management had assured him that as long as he provided the proper documentation, he could take days of medical leave to care for his wife, who suffers from chronic migraine headaches. Since this type of leave was available to all employees, King believes he must have been fired because his wife is physically disabled, because he is black, or both. "If I'm wrong, I'm a big enough man to admit I'm wrong," King insists. "But I'm not gonna let anybody take advantage of me."

For more than a decade Diane King has been plagued by the headaches. She says their arrival is impossible to predict, but when the pain hits it is debilitating. Vomiting and screaming ensue. Light and noise exacerbate the pain. When nothing else works, Joe drives her to the hospital for a knockout shot of Demerol. "It's like a lion in a cage; that's how bad it is," Diane says wearily. "I cannot perform. I cannot function. I'm just like a vegetable."

 

In May, King filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employ-ment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, charging that Northwest had violated his civil rights. The complaint states that while non-black employees were able to keep their jobs after missing work for family or medical-leave problems, he was terminated. "I believe this is a violation of my rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964," King's complaint reads. "Other employees...who missed work for the same or similar reasons were not terminated." Additionally, King asserts, he repeatedly turned in doctors' notes documenting his wife's health problems, only to have them disappear before reaching his personnel file. "I keep telling them I was born at night, not last night," King scoffs.

Buster Harris, a 32-year employee at Northwest, was King's immediate supervisor. He sympathizes with his former employee, noting that a man of Filipino origin who works as a baggage handler at Northwest was absent without explanation for 17 days. When he produced medical documentation to explain his absence, however, the employee managed to preserve his place on the payroll. "They take a doctor's word from the Philippines, yet Joe King's doctor here in the United States writes up the paperwork and they don't take his word for it," Harris says, incredulous. "[Joe] was always at work on time, all the time. I think Northwest should have about 60 or 80 more like him out there. Then they'd be fine."

Since filing his complaints, King has met with Kenneth Udoibok, a Minneapolis-based attorney, and hopes to eventually file suit against the corporation. Udoibok would not comment on King's allegations, saying he has yet to decide whether to represent him on a pro bono basis.

In the ten months since his termination, King has not found employment. He has applied for warehouse work and construction jobs, but without luck. In the meantime the bills have piled up and his credit rating has bottomed out. Family plans to build a home have been put on hold.

"I really don't want to go through this shit, because I don't have the money," he says. "My financial situation is not good at all. My lifestyle and my family life and everything has just taken a beating. It's just kind of scary."

 

Northwest is no stranger to discrimination claims. In recent weeks the airline has twice been slapped by the EEOC, a federal agency charged with enforcing federal civil rights laws. On April 12 Northwest reached a settlement with the commission on a race discrimination case stemming from a series of incidents at the Detroit Metro Airport in 1995. The allegations read like newspaper headlines from the Kennedy/Johnson era. At Northwest's Detroit cargo facility a hangman's noose was allegedly strung up in the workers' lunchroom. Complainants also reported that a militia poster featuring a racial slur, a Ku Klux Klan symbol, and a likeness of Sambo, was on display. "The facts in that case were highly contested," maintains Northwest's director of media relations Kathleen Peach. "We did choose to settle it rather than have it drag out and continue to take up our time and resources."

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