A Qantas flight attendant with a history of being drunk at work has had her claim for unfair dismissal rejected by the Fair Work Commission.
Margot Crowley, who had worked for the airline for just over 28 years, was sacked in January after an incident in which she failed to report for duty for a flight from New York to Los Angeles. When she arrived at the airport after missing her flight, she returned a blood alcohol reading of 0.117%.
Crowley told the commission she deserved another opportunity to seek help for her health-related problems associated with alcohol, but senior deputy president Justice Alan Boulton ruled in favour of Qantas, which he said had a valid reason to terminate her employment.
The commission heard Crowley had a history of alcohol-related incidents while employed by Qantas, including incidents in 2004, 2005, 2009 and 2012, at which time she was required to participate in a wellbeing program and was provided with written notice that any further incidents would jeopardise her employment.
The commission found that as a flight attendant, Crowley was responsible for the safety of Qantas passengers and by consuming alcohol during the ‘slip’ time between her rostered flights, was in breach of the airlines’ Cabin Crew Operations Manual.
“As a result of the previous instances, and the investigations, meetings and warnings involved, [Crowley] should have been fully aware of the need to address the problems related to her alcohol use and to ensure that she complied with Qantas policies and requirements,” said Boulton.
“The applicant was employed in a safety-critical role and it is important that Qantas is able to have trust and confidence that she could fulfil this role in a safe matter and not be affected by alcohol.”
While Boulton said he had “no doubt” Crowley has sought to address her issues with alcohol since the termination of her employment, he said Qantas previously gave her “opportunities and assistance in the past to address these problems, especially and most recently in relation to the … 2012 incident”.
“The incident of 8 January 2014 demonstrated that, despite such opportunities, there were continuing problems relating to the applicant’s conduct which directly impacted on her work as a flight attendant,” he said.
A spokesperson for Qantas told SmartCompany the airline has a “very strict drug and alcohol policy as part of our commitment to safety, including training, testing, and rehabilitation”.
“If an employee is found to have breached the rules, they are immediately removed from their role and undergo a comprehensive assessment to determine what treatment and support may be required and whether they are fit to continue to fly,” the spokesperson says.
Swaab Attorneys partner and workplace relations expert Warwick Ryan told SmartCompany since the introduction of the Fair Work Act in 2009, the Fair Work Commission has taken “a particularly hard line when it comes to alcohol or drug use”.
Ryan says while it can be more difficult for employers to effectively test for drug use, particularly marijuana, by employees, he says testing for alcohol is much more straightforward.
“The critical factor in this case is that there were five breaches,” says Ryan.
“This was the fifth breach of the policy, albeit over a 10 year period. The view of Boulton was that [Crowley] had a number of occasions, particularly in 2012 when she participated in a wellness program, to address her alcohol use but she made a choice not to.”
Ryan says the other factor in Qantas’ favour was the airline’s record in enforcing its policies in relation to alcohol use in the workplace.
“It’s a big advantage, particularly in tough cases,” says Ryan, who says if Qantas had not followed procedure, “it could have potentially given [Crowley] the lifeline she wanted”.
While Ryan says this case was “not a particularly significant decision”, given Crowley’s history of alcohol-related incidents and the high level of her blood alcohol reading, there is a “history of the commission being quite tough in this area”.
“The lesson for employers is that if you are looking to terminate an individual based on misconduct and you tie it to work health and safety issues that are not trivial, your prospects of being successful and holding on to it if there is an appeal are much greater,” he says.
“OH&S is probably seen as a much higher priority, whether rightly or wrongly, than productivity.”