Fired for Speaking Korean? Delta Says No

by Sam Roecker
Delta and Korean Air joint venture

Delta operates a joint venture with Korean Airlines. Image by Korean Air.

Four terminated Delta employees filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination against their employer for “speaking Korean.” The former employees – fired in May 2017 – claim a manager directed them ‘not to speak Korean’ because it made other workers feel uncomfortable. The lawsuit also claims the employees were sexually harassed and reprimanded after reporting it to Delta management.

Seattle-based Delta employees claim they were fired for speaking their native language

The four Seattle-based former employees were hired to work Delta’s Seattle-Tacoma (SEA) to Seoul Incheon (ICN) flights and assist Korean passengers. All four employees were born in Korea and moved to the U.S.

The employees also claim they were not offered additional compensation for their foreign language fluency, unlike other employees hired to make announcements for international flights. The lawsuit was initially filed in Washington state court but was moved to federal court after Delta’s request.

Delta Air Lines Employee Assists Passengers

Delta employee assists passengers at MSP. Photo by Delta Air Lines

Delta has a different take on the story

Delta again told NBC News, that the former employees were “unfortunately but appropriately terminated because the company determined they violated ticketing and fare rules.”

Delta does not tolerate workplace discrimination or harassment of any kind. Such behavior runs counter to our core values of diversity and inclusion and our mission of connecting the world. We take allegations of workplace harassment and discrimination very seriously and our investigations into allegations made by these former employees were found to be without merit.

View From the Wing offers some additional insight on the ‘fare violations’ – translation: free upgrades.

Fired for giving away or selling upgrades? 

Delta’s claim that the employees were fired for upgrading passengers is unusual, but not entirely implausible.

Gate agents often issue what are called “operational upgrades” if a flight is oversold. Delta normally doles out upgrades based on passengers’ frequent flyer status and the time they booked their flight, but if a flight is running late and agents are in a hurry to push the flight, they may upgrade a lucky person who happens to be at the counter.

Reports of abuse, in which agents upgrade friends or non-revenue passengers ahead of deserving frequent flyers, are not unheard of.

Operational upgrades are more common on international flights, in cases where frequent flyers aren’t eligible for complimentary upgrades.

Seattle Hub Station

Delta in Seattle. Image by Delta Air Lines

Delta Airlines Seattle SEA Departures

Delta in Seattle (SEA). Image by Delta Air Lines

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