It had happened a hundred times before. This time it happened in JFK Airport in New York on a plane that had just landed from Pittsburgh. A passenger left her seat too soon, and opened up the storage compartment above her seat. The flight attendant, Steven Slater, then did what he always did. He calmly asked her to return to her seat until the airplane came to a complete stop. The passenger ignored him, and then slater did what he always did. He calmly went to help her get seated again. The passenger verbally attacked Slater and wound up hitting him over the head with the over-sized bag that she was wrestling out of the overhead bin. After this, Slater did something no one else ever did. He returned to the intercom and let loose with an obscenity-laced incentive directed at the woman. He then made a dramatic departure by pulling the trigger on the emergency inflatable exit chute, sliding off into retirement—but only after grabbing two beers from the beverage cart for the trips. Perhaps the only thing more remarkable than Slater’s outrageous escape was the public’s reaction to it. Despite the unsafe and, in fact, illegal nature of Slater’s act, he immediately became an American folk hero. Within two days of the event, over 180,000 people had joined Facebook pages devoted to him where they all shared fantasies about how they too would like to make dramatic exits from their own jobs. On of his fans, a former flight attendant from Queens, spoke for many when she stated, “Enough is enough—good for him”. The reaction of Slater and his fan base speaks volumes about both the difficult nature of the specific job of flight attendant, as well as the larger collective mood of the American workforce. With respect to the flight attendant’s job, this is an arduous task characterized by low pay, long hours and demanding customers, some of who are crying babies, drunks, or phobia to heights, crowds or enclosed conditions. Within the charged context, they must enact strict safety and security procedures that have to be followed without exception or face disciplinary charges. In addition to the stressful nature of the work, Slater himself was struggling with work-family conflict, as he juggled his highly unpredictable work schedule with the demands of simultaneously trying to care for his dying mother. Turning to the larger workforce, Steve Slater’s frustration mirrored the mood of many Americans workers who were fed up with their current job and looking for the first opportunity to quit. Large-scale surveys of the American workforce documented that “feeling of loyalty to one’s employer” hit an all-time low in 2009, and in 2010, the number of employees who voluntarily left their jobs surpassed the number of people involuntarily laid off for the first time since 2008. This spells future trouble for many employees, and as one HR executive noted, “We are trying to catch people even before they start looking for a new job which will become even more important as the economy improves and more opportunities at competitors opens up.” For many employers, however, this all may be too little, too late, and they may be unable to recapture the loyalty of all these “Steve Slater wannabees”.
- What aspects of a flight attendants’ job are conducive to stress, and what other jobs share similar characteristics?
- Why do you think the actions of this one worker resonated so strongly with wider public opinion and what does this suggest about the nature of jobs in the U.S. economy?
- What are some steps employers can take to help reduce and manage employer stress in jobs like these?
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