All Steven Gray wanted was to be properly trained as an airline ramp agent for Delta and Northwest Airlines at Will Rogers World Airport. The Oklahoma City resident just wanted to know the correct procedures for below-wing aircraft handling, like marshaling planes, loading baggage and boarding passengers.
But apparently, Gray was asking too much from his employer, DAL Global Services (DGS), a wholly owned subsidiary of Delta Airlines. Gray's requests led the company into actions for which an administrative law judge with the U.S. Department of Labor deemed illegal and awarded Gray monetary compensation a few weeks ago.
Gray filed a complaint, alleging he had been retaliated against for whistle-blowing activities.
"I wasn't surprised I won," Gray said in an interview with Oklahoma Gazette. "I was worried there might be a bias (by the judge). We presented a very good case."
Since 2006, Gray has been working underneath planes. When gazing out the plane's window, passengers see ramp agents working on the airport tarmac, wearing orange vests and 1970s-style headphones. In most cases, the agents work for a private company, which is contracted through an airline for aircraft handling. DGS had two contracts, one with Delta and one with Northwest. Those two airlines have now merged.
Gray first worked for DGS in 2006 but left later that year for a different airline contractor. Gray said his first experience with the company was great. But when he returned to DGS in 2009, conditions dramatically changed.
"In 2006, I would say we had over 2,000 man-hours a week budgeted, and that was with one airline only," he said. "In 2009, (DGS) gave the managers a maximum of 800 hours a week to work with Delta and Northwest. That's almost 20 flights a day."
But it was in the training that Gray saw the biggest difference.
"In 2006, we had a weeklong training on everything from start to finish. This time, they had a corporate trainer come through, and he just zipped through two days of training."
Gray said he began to come across work areas he was not trained for and asked the company to see his training records. He was told it would take several months to retrieve the records. However, documents show Gray's training records were sent to his supervisors within a few days of his request.
Concerned the training problems were leading to hazardous safety issues, Gray called a company hotline, as instructed in the employee handbook, to voice his concerns. He also called several DGS airline customers about the safety issues.
It was then that things started turning ugly for Gray.
"When I went back to work, I was immediately called into the office, had my badge pulled and told, 'We can't have you calling in safety complaints like this?'" said Gray, who was placed on suspension.
He then filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. At first, it seemed to make a difference. Gray and his employer came to a settlement: Gray would receive his proper training and the company would not retaliate for his filing of the complaint.
"Yet the ink was not yet dry on this settlement agreement when DGS issued Mr. Gray a 'warning letter,' based in large part on his safety complaints that were the subject of the settlement agreement," wrote Judge Linda Chapman in her opinion on the case. "It is difficult to fathom any purpose for the issuance of this letter other than as documentation for future disciplinary action against Mr. Gray, which is indeed what happened."
On the same day the settlement was reached, Gray received the warning letter.
"I had a sense I was going to be reinstated to my job, but I knew 100 percent this was just the beginning. That it hadn't resolved anything," he said. "Their attitude hadn't changed."
Shortly after returning to work, another incident erupted that gave DGS a "convenient trigger" to fire Gray. While working under a plane, Gray noticed another ramp agent walking under a plane's engine while it was still running. Gray tried to talk to the co-worker about the incident, but the worker didn't want to talk to Gray. He then told his bosses of the incident.
But instead of addressing the problem, Gray found himself suspended again because his supervisors said his actions were "seditious in nature." He was later terminated.
As evidence, DGS submitted documents that stated Gray was not a good employee, that he was using unauthorized breaks, had attendance issues and displayed unprofessional conduct. There was only one problem with these accusations: The company couldn't verify the accusations. None of the documents submitted by the company were signed, and none of the witnesses used for the accusations were called to testify.
In fact, some of the documents submitted by DGS bolstered Gray's claim, including papers that showed Gray as a good worker.
"If I didn't use their exhibits, I may not have had enough evidence to really persuade this judge," Gray said. "I had never gotten to this level before fighting a case "¦ and I didn't know what to ask for, and my attorney had never worked a case like this. They submitted copies of attendance records, e-mails where they admitted they purposely didn't give me my training records. I think we referred more to their records than to ours."
By the end of the trial, the judge was more than persuaded.
"I find that, despite its settlement of Mr. Gray's March 2009 complaint, DGS began building a case to terminate him as early as the March 12, 2009, letter placed in his file," Chapman wrote in the case opinion.
Gray was awarded $58,497 for pay compensation " "a very modest sum," the judge noted " as well as attorney fees. He did not ask for compensatory damages.
Gray said since his departure from DGS, he has not been able to get a job with another airline carrier and feels he is being blacklisted.
"I left three other airlines in good standing and had offers to be rehired," he said. "After this case, none of them will talk to me."
Gray is now locally working part-time with FedEx. "Scott Cooper
photo Steven Gray. Photo/Mark Hancock