Did United Airlines Bait-and-Switch Flight Attendants Into Taking Early Retirement?

During the pandemic airlines were gifted billions in taxpayer dollars to keep all of their employees on staff, ready to work when travel returned. Only they didn’t do that. They convinced employees to retire early, and they paid employees to stay home rather than staying certified and work ready.

As they tried to get employees to take unpaid leaves and early retirements, the offers sometimes got better and better. One United Airlines employee, who took an ‘early out’ is suing because United made a better offer than the one they accepted, and they want that better offer too.

A retired flight attendant sued United Airlines in Illinois federal court Tuesday, claiming the airline illegally blocked her and other retirees from accessing benefits and additional pay through “early-out” severance programs, which the airline maintains are actually paid leaves of absence.

Micheal Hoffman, 64, lodged her complaint Tuesday under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act and seeks to bring her claims on behalf of a proposed class of other United retirees who she said were also prevented from obtaining early-out benefits under two of the airline’s programs.

…Hoffman qualified for the Voluntary Separation Program 2, or VSP2, which rolled out in 2020 and offered health care and retirement benefits, the complaint said.

But after learning about another severance program that rolled out after she’d retired under VSP2, which she claimed offered significantly better benefits — including an additional $112,500 in pay and a $125,000 health care account contribution — she tried to switch into the second program.

United maintains they didn’t actually offer early retirement, they offered leaves you can’t come back from. Ok then.

But if they did offer early outs (they did) an employee receives the offer they accepted, it doesn’t matter if a better offer came along later.

Except, the employee maintains, United Airlines explicitly promised that they could. From the complaint:

The “A Message from Oscar” (referenced in the VSP2 FAQ) states: “Many of you have told me that you are holding off on retirement, waiting to see if the company offers another early out. I want to be upfront and transparent with you about our future plans, so you can make the best plans for yourself and your family. So, to give you greater confidence when you do make the decision to retire, I’ve asked to add a new clause to our retirement policy. If something dramatic happens in the industry and we decide to offer an early out within 36 months after you retire, you would be eligible for the financial benefits of the program even after retiring.”

So the question is it seems whether that promise made is, in fact, binding on future early out offers.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. definitely bait and switch not sure if it will hold up since it is probably not in the agreement she signed but United should honor it based on their own wording.

  2. @David – Normally sure. But the promise was the that timing didn’t matter since you’d get a better offer if it came along.

  3. Senior mama’s unhappy? Yawn.
    Its like they stock market. YOU decide when to buy and when to sell. This professional jumpseat warmer chose wrong. Hey, at least they’re gone.

  4. I was 100% on United’s side until you got to the “Message from Oscar.” Yes, you take an offer, live with it. But *United* included in that offer the option to upgrade to a better offer if one is subsequently made within 36 months. Assuming she took the offer *after* the “Message from Oscar”, then United should pay up. If so, it’s a case of “If you make an offer, live with it.”

  5. Like a concomitant problem experienced at Amtrak, if only the Board of Directors not selected by who they know, but rather, had members selected for their particular experience and knowledge to competently oversight manage.

    Certainly to avoid this specific failure by management, a Board member with expertise in labor law and labor relations would have provided the requisite oversight to properly steward UA.

    Given AA’s propensity for repetitive compulsion in labor issues, and now UA, where is the U.S. Labor Department and the relevant union(s)?

  6. I think the issue here lies in the fine print. VSP1, 2, and 3 were not “Early Out” programs despite how they may appear. Early out programs were offered to UA employees in the past and looked very different than these VSP programs that were offered back in 2020. These employees were told that if they took VSP1 they couldn’t then come back and get VSP2 or VSP3,4,5 etc. This is very much a case where an employee accepted an offer and then a different (not necessarily better depending on your personal situation) offer was made and they have buyers remorse. Sorry Micheal.

  7. @ David R. Miller — ERISA exits to protect people from people like you. United will lose (well, actually they will end up settling out of court) this case.

  8. United’s management are chiselers. They have broken more than one promise of lifetime benefits. Employees should have known not to trust any promises. One can hope that the courts will teach United’s managers a lesson.

  9. @Jorge
    Since they’re all at the bar with the captain/fo/other fa’s, I’ll play the part and outline the points any flight who wishes to respond will make:
    1. We are here only for YOUR safety
    2. We have more training than firefighters, cops and doctors…..combined.
    3. Who’s going to save your ass when the plane drops from 35000 ft and smashes into the earth at 600mph and into a million unrecognizable pieces?
    4. Since we go into the cockpit when the fo comes out to take a shit…..we’re basically pilots too.
    5. Now that the FAMS have restarted the voluntary training to teach us how to stomp on a hijackers foot, we’re also basically FAMS too….actually, we’re better than the FAMS.
    6. If our company should force us to provide even the bare minimum of cabin service then we will all die of covid…..instantly.
    7. Harassing you about wearing your mask makes us horny.
    8. We frequently smuggle drugs through KCM.

    I’m sure I missed a few but I’m sure a real flight attendant can fill in the gaps.
    I remember for a fescyears after 9/11 a bunch of flight attendants were running around with a tag on their bag that said: “We Are Heroes Too!”
    L.O.L.

  10. I agree with her, not fair at all and if it was offer then it should be honor.
    Pilots flight attendants, ground agents should all file a class a class action suit so to put pressure on United Airlines to delive what was promised.

  11. So now people are actually supposed to trust that United will do what its’ CEO has publicly promised? As if.

  12. The “letter from Oscar” was referring to “Retirement” and not “Early Separation” which is what VSP2 was.

    Michael knows this.

    Everyone involved knows this.

    Upon leaving, accepting a huge RHA and additional HSA funds, accepting an extra large lump sum due to the enhanced pension calculation thanks to an extra year of service bonus (part of her package) and the insanely low interest rates (had she waited til January 2021 she would have gotten thousands LESS and she knows this) she also SIGNED an affidavit acknowledging that it was an early separation and more specifically that she would not have the right to any subsequent offers.

    You’ll note it is not a class action suit… because everyone else understood the deal they were getting and took the money and ran.

  13. While not at all the same fact pattern this reminds me of the United lifetime promise when they basically said you can’t trust our promises of lifetime anything because we reserve the right to change them. We’d all do well to remember that these programs and companies will do anything and everything they think they have to do to keep a dollar in their pockets, up to and including lying to you, making a promise with their fingers crossed behind their back, and so on.

    I’d probably side with the FA on this one; retirement and “a leave you voluntarily opt into that means you can’t be rehired” is virtually the same thing, and a Message from Oscar in plain terms you would expect to be honored. Not too plussed, really, but words ought to mean something.

  14. When COVID cut travel demand drastically last year, there was an immediate need to draw down staffing quickly with limited financial means. UA was losing $100 mil a day at the time, without Federal grants to shore up operations, so the Voluntary Separation Program was offered in early 2020, (along with company offered leaves which kept employees on the property at no pay) Participants saw it as a way to guarantee their retirement, having lost their pensions in an earlier UA bankruptcy.. Once the CARES Act passed (and UA still needed to reduce staff) the Voluntary Separation Leave options were offered in 2021 — a Leave of Absence with no intent to return the participants to work, with two different financial incentives: $125K healthcare “credit”, or $118K in minimum flight pay until 2022. Neither allowed participants to draw their pension (and retirement benefits) until finally separating.

    There was no deception on United’s part. Clearly, two different “exits” were offered under vastly different financial circumstances. Employees weighed the options available at the time and jumped off or waited for United to recover — or make a better offer.

  15. Voluntary Separation leave is different than Early Out retirement. Oscar Munoz’s addresses retirement NOT voluntary Separation.

  16. Thank you Julie!

    Exactly – which is why it’s wrong to even bring up the “Òscar letter” because it simply does not pertain to this case.

    Again, you’ll notice there IS no class action — because everyone (else) is conscious of this and did not jump onto the legal bandwagon.

  17. Can they both lose?
    As to the FA, she can always console herself BT remembering to replace her mask between bites. After all, safety should always be her first priority.

  18. She really has nothing to sue over. My understanding 112000 was salry who left n July until Jan 2022. 125000 was for people who only 45 years when they Medicare not available. Micheal shud have had sick time to bridge her insurance until 65 if she was Ua flt the company gave them hours to bridge company insurance she had 1 year left also don’t know how long she flew if she flew for CO She rcvd a lump sum plus years of service. I know one employee rcvd 20000 to his lump sum plus 45000 FSA HE Worked Texas international Continental then UNITED HE WAS 65 at the time he felt he got a good deal

  19. At Chris: you sound CAUSTIC. Did you get your fair share of turn-downs when YOU ASKED for a DATE from a flight attendant NOT wanting to date your small weinie?? And for your info-the days are long on duty as well as the night-that MOST crews are too damb tired to go to the bars factor-in the covid and TRIPLE the slamming and lock-clicking of the hotel doors……

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