Job responsibilities, the JetBlue flight attendant and the law

Sure, we all may love to fantasize about being at work and just quitting on the spot when a boss or customer gives us a hard time.

Country-western singer, Johnny Paycheck, sang a song of revenge for all of us when he belted out the song, “Take This Job and Shove It,” back in 1977.

But as much as it can be fun to think about, not everyone can really just quit whenever they feel like it when they think they’ve had enough.

That, though is just what JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater did early last week when he allegedly was upset after an airline passenger on his flight refused to follow crew instructions, according to a story in The New York Times.

Image credit: © iStockphoto.com/travelinglight

So what did he do? Apparently, when a passenger got up to get her luggage from an overhead compartment before the plane stopped taxiing, he got into a verbal altercation, was struck in the head by her bag and the situation boiled over.

According to the story, he asked for an apology, didn’t get it, and then allegedly cursed the woman out over the plane’s public address system. To top it off, he then allegedly opened an aircraft door, activated an escape chute, and evacuated the plane. He was later arrested by police at his home.

And in the end, some other passengers apparently didn’t agree with Slater’s account of the incident, according to an Associated Press story in The Philadelphia Inquirer.¬† At least one passenger called Slater “rude” and labeled his behavior as “inappropriate” in reaction to the situation that unfolded on the plane.

Now the first thing that comes to mind here at MyPhillyLawyer is that there are some jobs that absolutely, positively leave no room for such actions. Those kinds of jobs include anything where the safety of the public is at stake. That would certainly include airline crews, police, fire and ambulance personnel, and any other jobs where protecting the public is a first priority.

In this case, Slater was flat out wrong from a practical and safety point-of-view. As an airline flight attendant, he had a legal and ethical obligation to maintain his cool, no matter what situation transpired with a passenger. The safety of every other passenger on the JetBlue flight was put into a bad situation due to his behavior. That’s not acceptable, no matter what a passenger does to be difficult.

By taking such an action and leaving the plane, Slater essentially gave up his job. That’s something to think about when, as in most states across the U.S., you are an “at-will” employee. That means that you are hired and kept on at the will of your employer and that you can be fired at any time if they don’t want to keep you employed. That’s what most workers live by, unless they are under contract or have a collective bargaining agreement. Contracts or labor agreements can provide special rights to protect you.

For Slater and all of us, that means an “at-will” employee can be fired for any reason, as long as it’s not discriminatory. In his case, we still haven’t heard if he is protected by any sort of employment contract.

This case should make us all think carefully if we ever consider taking such a drastic step as quitting a job on the spot. There are legal ramifications from such an action, and in Slater’s case, public safety ramifications as well.

If you are having problems in your workplace, don’t act rashly. Talk to an attorney and find out about your legal rights and responsibilities before you take an action that might be detrimental.

It may be emotionally purging to tell your employer to “Take This Job and Shove it,” but the law may not be on your side if you do.