A former veteran United Airlines flight attendant claims she was effectively forced to take early retirement at the height of the pandemic in 2020 because she feared she would be terminated for breaching the carrier’s strict face mask rules if she removed her mask to take a puff on an asthma inhaler.
Sharolyn Stanley, a long-serving flight attendant who first started working for Continental Airlines in 1994 before the merger with United, has filed a lawsuit in a Florida court accusing her former employer of disability discrimination for failing to provide her with a mask accommodation.
Following her ‘forced’ early retirement at the age of 63, Stanley is calling on the court to award her back and forward pay, as well as compensatory damages for emotional pain and suffering, and punitive damages against United Airlines.
Stanley has suffered from asthma since she was a young child but had always managed her condition well and her asthma had never posed a problem in her role as a flight attendant. That was, she says, until United introduced a mask mandate in early 2020.
At the time, the federal mask mandate didn’t exist and in some respects, United’s masking rules were even more strict. United effectively barred medically exempt passengers from flying, while flight attendants and other customer-facing staff were told they could face disciplinary action if they removed their mask while onboard a United plane.
Stanley claims she tried to seek a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act in July 2020, but her request was turned down and by February 2021, she had taken early retirement in order to avoid potential termination for breaking United’s mask policy.
The lawsuit alleges that Stanley quit her dream job “due to the toxic work environment resulting from [United’s] Mask Policy with no accommodation on file and the very real threat of termination for removing her mask to use her rescue inhaler”.
Stanley also claims she “suffered discriminatory treatment because she couldn’t take her mask off to allow her body to acclimate to the environment of the aircraft with triggering smells, without the threat of termination”.
Following Stanley’s retirement, United amended its mask policy and a specific exemption was made for passengers and staff to take medication. The federal mask mandate provided passengers and employees with further protections.
In order to prevent being reported for breaking the mask mandate, Stanley says she would often be drinking or eating – one of the few exemptions that United permitted.
It turns out, however, that United probably wouldn’t have terminated Stanley or even disciplined her for breaking its mask rules. In fact, following a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, Stanley learned for the first time that a colleague had turned her in for being maskless on a jetway.
The lawsuit says that Stanley “could not have known that United’s mask policy was just threatening words that they never intended on enforcing.”
“She took the policy at its word and worked within the guidelines of that policy. Knowing now that it didn’t matter is frustrating.”
Still, Stanley says the mask mandate made colleagues “crazy, demanding, ego driven control freaks”. As a result, Stanley says she was “very worried about being turned in for not wearing a mask and terminated due to the insanity of how flight attendants were implementing this Mask Policy”.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.