Tuesday, September 20, 2011


Whistleblower trial alleges ongoing safety violations in United Airlines Honolulu call center

by Larry Geller

Monday was the first day of a whistleblower suit brought by a former employee against United Airlines. The case, Donna Kuehu v. United Airlines, is being heard in downtown federal court by Boston-based labor judge Jonathan Calianos.

This is more than a simple employment discrimination suit because of the context in which it is embedded—alleged workplace health conditions of long standing and failure of state government to intervene.

The employer is United Airlines, which operates a call center in the basement of a state-owned building hidden in the service area behind public concourses at Honolulu Airport. Passengers experience smiling representatives in shiny ticket areas, waiting lounges and perhaps less attractive baggage claim areas, but generally have no view of behind-the-scenes activities that support their travel experience.

As this case unfolds, it is becoming clear that behind the facade lies a totally different, and in many ways disturbing, work environment. Beyond the glitter of the concourse is the drab and occasionally seamy service area where baggage and food service mix with jet fuel, engine fumes, and, as this case seeks to prove, dangerous contaminants that have already threatened worker health.

According to information coming out during the first day of the trial, the basement of this state-owned building at 324 Rogers Blvd. was formerly used by Pan Am as a warehouse or storage area. Now leased by United Airlines, the top floor is sub-leased to Gate Gourmet, an airline caterer, and the bottom has housed one of United’s few remaining domestic call centers.

Behind the building is a grease trap, the ugly centerpiece of this case. It is alleged that fumes and gasses from this plumbing have repeatedly made workers at the call center sick, and according to those attending and familiar with the case, may be implicated in three deaths. From paperwork associated with the case, the grease trap is alleged to be grossly unable to handle the load of crap forced through it daily by the catering operation upstairs. Other incidents detailed plumbing and water supply failures that relate to worker health in the facility.

A union rep on the witness stand Monday described filing numerous health complaints and the lengths union members had to resort to in order to get the reports on record with United. Although she no longer works for United, she explained that she continued to receive calls from workers about conditions in the call center.

As the trial progresses, a disturbing picture is likely to be filled in: no state or federal agency has come to the rescue of these workers. So while the trial has a single plaintiff and a defendant, United Airlines, it could taint Hawaii’s Department of Health and perhaps federal agencies as well with the paintbrush of neglect and irresponsibility.

The upstairs caterer Gate Gourmet was the subject of FDA investigation for its food handling procedures that appeared to sicken passengers on flights served food prepared by the caterer, according to newspaper reports.

An airline caterer in Honolulu that recently got a warning from the Food and Drug Administration for violating public health and sanitation requirements has been linked to a major food-poisoning outbreak.

Contaminated carrots served by Gate Gourmet to passengers on flights out of Honolulu on Aug. 22-24, 2004, resulted in 45 cases of food poisoning in travelers to 22 U.S. states, Australia, American Samoa and Japan, said state epidemiologist Paul Effler.

Gate Gourmet was placed on provisional status in April following an FDA inspection, which accused company employees of preparing food in dirty, bug-infested areas and using their hands to load ice that would later be used in passenger drinks.

Gate Gourmet's Honolulu kitchen was reinspected during an unannounced FDA visit on Tuesday and has been taken off provisional status, said Mary Ellen Taylor, a spokeswoman for the FDA.

[Star-Bulletin, Isle firm linked to airline food ills: Gate Gourmet food may have led to 45 cases of poisoning, 5/19/2005]

There are layers of complexity in the case. Win or lose, union jobs are at risk. One option that United would clearly have, should the health issues break out of the courtroom and into the mainstream press, could be to shut down the Honolulu call center entirely and pull back to one of its overseas facilities. This would cost badly needed jobs in Honolulu.

As the trial starts, we have allegations. As facts are established, like the often sordid back area of a busy airport, they may reveal a picture that is not just unpleasant, but perhaps revealing of hidden government neglect. This case bears watching.

We’ll have more details as the trial progresses.

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