Fouling the Air

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

 

In October 1998 Hattie Webb, a Northwest ticket agent, was checking in passengers for a flight to Phoenix. When she began asking one customer a set of federally mandated security questions, the elderly white man bristled. "I ain't answering no questions from no coon," he said.

Webb turned the unruly customer over to three officers from airport security, all of whom were black. The passenger treated them with equal disdain. "You niggers better not steal any of my clothes!" he shouted, as they searched his bags.

Eventually Webb's supervisor, who is white, arrived on the scene and attempted to defuse the situation. She talked to the passenger, even shared a laugh with him, according to Webb. The supervisor eventually managed to placate the belligerent passenger. Then she gave him a better seat on the flight. "I was in shock," Webb recalls. "I was in total shock. What could be funny?"

Webb wrote up a report detailing the incident and turned it over to management. She also filed a complaint with the company's Equal Employment Opportunity office, alleging racial harassment.

The episode sent shock waves through the company. Meetings were called in the fall of 1998 to reassure upset workers that the company was looking into the incident. An investigation to see if any disciplinary measures needed to be taken was conducted by a Northwest attorney, Renee Raming. A trial-like hearing was held, in which witnesses were called and minutes taken.

After the initial investigation was completed in early November, Webb left for a long-planned vacation to the Bahamas, relieved that the issue was being addressed. "I'm thinking, 'Wow, they're really going out of their way to make sure every stone was turned,'" the 50-year-old recalls. "I'm thinking, 'Thank God it's over.'"

On November 30, in a letter addressed to Webb, Lorie Humphrey, Northwest's director of human resources, corroborated the employee's claim that she had been treated in a "racially offensive" manner by a customer. Humphrey also noted that an investigation into the incident revealed that Webb's supervisor had "mishandled the situation," and she would be disciplined for inappropriate behavior.

A couple of days later, Webb was summoned to a meeting in the labor relations office at Northwest's corporate headquarters in Eagan. Awaiting her arrival were several in-house attorneys, company managers, and a stack of tickets that Webb had processed during the past three years. "All their heads of state were sitting in that room," Webb recalls. The company had conducted an audit of every ticket in search of mistakes. Over the next six hours, according to Webb, she was asked to explain every discrepancy that had been found. Many of the tickets in question, Webb maintains, were from the two-week pilots' strike in August and September of 1998--a time in which chaos was the order of the day.

"I was totally drained and in shock," she says of the confrontation. In her 11 years as a Northwest employee, Webb had never heard of anyone being audited for a period of more than three months. She came to the conclusion that the investigation was retaliation for her complaints about racial harassment.

Soon after the interrogation, Webb was given an ultimatum: Sign a "last chance agreement" or face termination. By signing the agreement she would be acknowledging that grounds existed for her dismissal and she would be placed on probation for two years. During that time, any slip-up would be deemed sufficient grounds for dismissal. After a day of agonizing over the decision, Webb signed the document.

What followed, Webb says now, was "two years of hell." From that moment on, her every move was scrutinized. If she went to the bathroom, management wondered where she was. She recalls one incident in which a white co-worker input a change incorrectly on Webb's terminal; a weeklong investigation ensued before she was cleared of any wrongdoing. "If I didn't have a migraine when I came to work, I had one when I left," she recounts. Her requests to be transferred out of the ticket-counter area were ignored. Finally, in October 1999, Webb took a leave of absence from Northwest and went to work for KSTP-TV (Channel 5).

During this time period, Webb received multiple commendations at Northwest. On December 9, 1998, just five days after she signed the last-chance agreement, Webb was issued a "Certificate of Commendation" from the director of customer service for "excellent work performance." Another commendation was awarded to her on February 22, 1999, and two more certificates were handed out in April of that year.

Despite the accolades, Webb says, she was treated more harshly than other employees. A 20-year veteran of the company who worked with Webb at the ticket counter backs up the claim. "She did her job; a lot of times she did more than what she should have done," says the employee, who spoke confidentially for fear that she would lose her job. "If they don't want you there, they'll find a way to get you out of there. That's just how Northwest is. If someone has a vendetta against you--basically, you're screwed."

This employee does question whether race had anything to do with the disparate treatment, however. She speculates that the derision may have had more to do with jealousy, noting that Webb, through her work at KSTP, was acquainted with many high-profile people who passed through the airport.

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