A class action lawsuit that alleges widespread sexual misconduct targeting WestJet flight attendants has another day in court, this time amid a global conversation about sexual assault.
Today a judge will look at the company’s request to strike down all or part of the case.
Former flight attendant Mandalena Lewis is suing WestJet for violating its own anti-harassment policies. Court filings allege she was sexually assaulted by a pilot in 2010 during a stopover in Hawaii. The pilot allegedly dragged Lewis to his hotel bed and groped her, but she pushed him off and got away. (Lewis’s allegations haven’t been tested in court.)
“I was not raped, but it was attempted, and it was an awful experience,” she told VICE. “It’s something nobody should ever have to go through.”
After the assault, Lewis says she filed reports with WestJet and Hawaii police, but the pilot was not disciplined or fired. “I was called in for a couple meetings. They were saying we can’t do anything about the pilot—it’s your word against his.” Lewis says she was asked to sign a document promising not to tell anyone about the assault.
Though Hawaii police opened an investigation, Lewis alleges WestJet took the pilot off Hawaii routes and did not cooperate with prosecutors there. She told VICE she later learned another flight attendant was allegedly assaulted by the same pilot in 2008, but was similarly instructed to keep quiet.
Lewis says the assault and the company’s handling of it demonstrate a company-wide culture that protects harassers and punishes women. She alleges this culture is enabled by the power imbalance between mostly male pilots and mostly female attendants.
Today WestJet will argue that the courts aren’t the right way for employees like Lewis to address sexual harassment. Court documents filed by the company say women like Lewis who have been assaulted or harassed are covered under human rights and workers' compensation law, and should take their cases to the appropriate tribunals. The company argues the class action claim is an abuse of process.
In a statement to Metro last week, Westjet said it could not comment on legal proceedings but said they were committed to "a harassment-free workplace."
Lewis alleges there are many more ways women flight attendants are degraded and sexualized on the job that go beyond individual cases. Court documents say attendants are commonly subject to gross jokes, inappropriate touching, and even blatant demands for sexual favours. The fact that there’s a term for attempts to enter flight attendants’ hotel rooms—the court filings call it “midnight knocking”—gives a sense of the industry.
WestJet’s day in court follows weeks of #metoo disclosures that have been shining a light on the pervasiveness of assault in other industries. Lewis says the hashtag is well timed for victims of harassment to come together. “The fact that women are breaking that silence is a really big deal because there’s an opportunity for us to find each other,” she said. “The courage is contagious.”
If the WestJet case moves forward and is successful, Lewis says there are potentially far-reaching implications for other service workers.
“Our claim has never been done before for any private industry,” she said. “If we certify and we win, we would set a precedent across the Canadian work sector, that means employers are going to be accountable and transparent about how they address harassment.”
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