Aviation

Laid-off workers file age discrimination suit against Spirit

A SPEEA member shows support for the union during the vote on the contract offered by Spirit AeroSystems in 2009. Many of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the company alleging age and disability discrimination attended a Monday news conference at the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA) in Wichita.
A SPEEA member shows support for the union during the vote on the contract offered by Spirit AeroSystems in 2009. Many of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the company alleging age and disability discrimination attended a Monday news conference at the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA) in Wichita. The Wichita Eagle

Twenty-four former Spirit AeroSystems workers — some still emotional about their layoff in 2013 — on Monday filed an age and disability discrimination lawsuit against the company in federal court.

All were over age 40 and they, or their family members, had serious medical conditions, said their attorneys. They are part a group of 221 employees laid off.

Many of the plaintiffs attended a Monday news conference at the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA) in Wichita. SPEEA announced the filing and is seeking others who have been laid off.

By its estimate, SPEEA said about 175 of the 221 laid off employees were over 40 and had a disability or were protected by the Family Medical Leave Act.

In response to the allegations in the suit, Spirit responded with an e-mailed statement:

“Spirit is an equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate in its employment practices, including hiring and termination decisions. The company takes that responsibility very seriously.

“Reductions in force are never easy, however all decisions are based on job-related, non-discriminatory criteria. We are confident the evidence in this case will show Spirit is compliant with the law in its employment practices.”

In the suit, the workers claim that:

▪ Spirit management tracked the demographics of its workforce and knew who had expensive medical conditions.

▪ In 2012 and 2013, as part of reconfiguring its worker performance ratings, it downgraded hundreds of workers, many strong performers who just happened to be over 40, from the top classification to the bottom classification. Such workers lose their seniority and their recall rights.

▪ On July 1, 2013, Spirit moved to self-fund its medical insurance.

▪ On July 25, 2013 Spirit laid off 221 people in July, including about 175 older workers.

▪ Starting in September 2013, Spirit went on a “hiring blitz,” adding hundreds of employees, most younger than 40. Because of their low classification, the laid off workers had no recall rights, effectively barring them from rehiring. Many of the 24 named claimants applied for the jobs, but none were hired.

Several of the 24 workers spoke Monday about how stunned they were to be laid off after decades of high-caliber work.

“I felt blindsided,” said a visibly emotional Craig Tolson, 60, a procurement analyst for 35 years, “It’s just wrong. No avenues. No hope. 57. It’s just not fair. I wasn’t even old enough to get to my 401K.”

Randy Rathbun, a Wichita attorney who is acting as the local counsel for the case, said the employees have to show that age or disability or improper termination using the Family and Medical Leave Act was key to the company’s actions. It means showing a pattern of discrimination with no legal explanation.

“We have to show they had solid, or better, performance records and then show that many of them had received commendations for the work they had done, then show there is no rational basis for including them within this group,” Rathbun said.

Dan Voorhis: 316-268-6577, @danvoorhis

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