The airline is arguing that the harassment allegations do not merit a class-action lawsuit and that employees should be taking their cases to human rights tribunals and workers’ compensation boards instead, according to court documents filed by the company.
The action was brought by Mandalena Lewis, a former flight attendant who accused a pilot of dragging her onto his hotel room bed and groping her during a layover in Hawaii in January 2010.
In March 2016, Lewis filed a civil lawsuit claiming WestJet violated its anti-harassment policies in its response to her complaint. She says the airline asked her to remain quiet about the incident, and then barred the pilot from flying to Hawaii, in effect protecting him from arrest by Maui police, who had opened an investigation into the case.
She says WestJet then stopped scheduling her on any flights that could have potentially been worked by the pilot, significantly reducing her hours, before firing her for insubordination after she made repeated requests to view her employment file.
WATCH: 2 WestJet employees off flying duty in wake of sex-assault allegation
Meanwhile, unknown to Lewis at the time, WestJet knew of a complaint by another flight attendant who alleged the same pilot had sex with her without her consent during a layover in Grand Prairie, Alta., in 2008, Lewis’ lawyers claim.
In April 2016, Lewis began a proposed class action after she claimed multiple women approached her with complaints similar to hers.
WestJet said on Thursday it would not comment on ongoing legal proceedings, but stated it is “committed to fostering a harassment-free workplace where all employees are treated with respect and dignity.”
“We encourage our employees to report any behaviour that may violate our policies via our confidential and anonymous whistleblower hotline or to any member of our leadership team,” a company spokesperson told Global News.
WATCH: Dealing with assault and harassment at work
WestJet’s position was slammed by consumer watchdog organization SumOfUs.
“WestJet’s claim that the courts aren’t the proper avenue to address allegations of sexual assault to be heard is insulting given that the airline both failed to create a safe work environment for its employees, and fired those that spoke out,” SumOfUs campaign manager Emma Pullman said in a press release.
Pullman added that she hoped the courts will allow the class-action lawsuit to proceed.
“Right now, we are in a powerful moment in history where sexual harassment and assault are being called out and condemned across entire industries. Part of the way that we change and end the prevalence of workplace sexual violence is by ensuring that there are real consequences for those who allow such vile crimes to continue unchecked.”
SumOfUs set up an online petition calling for WestJet CEO Gregg Saretsky to step down. The petition had nearly 38,000 signatures as of Thursday afternoon.