Open Letter: Why I won’t wear the American Airlines uniform

1*0W43rSzymLfxq-8yoEYsAg@2xDear Ms. Surdek,

My name is Heather Poole, but you probably know me better as employee 447110. I’ve been a flight attendant with American for 21 years. I love my job and I’ve always been proud to work for American, so much so that five years ago I wrote about it in my book. It became a New York Times Bestseller.

A lot has changed over the last nine months. The biggest thing for me is trust, which is a problem when you have a job that requires a lot of trust. I work in a flying tube at 30,000 feet. I put my trust into the hands of people I don’t know personally. Mix in terrorism and whatever contagious disease might be going around and, well, you hope you can trust the people who are in charge to make the right decisions that keep us safe. I’ve always trusted American and never questioned that trust…until now. The scary thing is if I can’t trust American to give me a safe uniform to wear, in other words a safe place to work, what else do I need to worry about?

Perhaps you don’t realize what a serious mistake it is to tell people the uniform is safe when there are over 5,000 employees who have had serious reactions to it. Maybe you don’t realize you’re making us question our trust in you when you continue to ignore all those sick employees by telling us we will no longer have the option to wear the old blue uniform or alternative look-alike pieces that we have purchased on our own. Surely, you’ve seen the horrific photos of the skin reactions that my fellow flight attendants and our pilots have shared; surely you’ve heard our stories about respiratory illness. Telling us that we will ONLY be allowed to wear Twin Hill or Aramark uniforms is worrisome on so many levels.

Let the record state that I can’t prove that any of my health problems are in fact caused by my wearing the uniform. This is how the uniform manufacturer continues to get away with it. The burden of proof lies on me. It’s also why American refuses to recall the uniform. Because we have not yet been able to prove what, exactly, is making us sick. Yet, thousands of us are sick; some of my colleagues have had doctors recommend they quit their jobs; others have lost wages because they’ve used up all their sick time and now they’re being harassed by management over their attendance.

Now let the record also state that every time I go to work I feel terrible. In my two decades as a flight attendant, I’ve never felt like this before. This is not a coincidence; so many other flight attendants have suffered a variety of ailments since the uniforms were introduced in September. From rashes and hives to thyroid issues. From serious respiratory issues to changes in menstrual cycles. From bloody noses to extreme swelling of faces and limbs. From eye infections to flu-like symptoms that don’t respond to antibiotics.

In addition, flight attendants for Alaska Airlines had the same set of health issues a few years ago with uniforms made by the same company. Even though their uniform tested safe, those illnesses must mean something.

I have hypothyroidism. My thyroid has been stable for years. I get my blood tested every three months. My TSH has been below a 2 (normal) for years. I have the data to prove it. After 6 days in uniform it rose outside of the normal range. I might have blown it off if I hadn’t read about the flight attendants at Alaska having thyroid issues after they were issued new uniforms by Twin Hill. That’s all it took to get me to stop wearing the uniform. My doctor upped my dose of medication and I switched to look-alike uniform pieces. Problem solved, right? Wrong. I wish it were that simple.

A few months after we were issued the new uniform I developed the cough. Nonstop all flight. Away from colleagues in uniform I was fine. Near them I couldn’t stop coughing.

Four months after the new uniform was issued, my heart started racing. At first I wondered if it was anxiety. I wondered what it was that made me feel so anxious as soon as I got to the airport? Was it the fact that I had just started flying more international trips? Was I anxious about my crews? It didn’t make sense because I love flying to Europe and I always enjoy being around the people I worked with. Then somebody mentioned to me that their iWatch had picked up their heart rate in flight and out of the blue it would get really high.

I downloaded a heart rate monitor app and started tracking my heart rate in flight. I couldn’t believe what I saw. On the ground, it averages 88bpm. On the plane, it got as high as 180. That’s when I realized that feeling wasn’t anxiety at all but my heart racing, not because I was stressed out or anxious but because co-workers in uniform were nearby.

Respiratory issues followed next. Five months after the new uniform was released I found myself short of breath at work. My lungs felt like they had shrunk. I ended up in the ER in December. I was diagnosed with RAD (reactive airways disease) and was given an inhaler and steroids, just like so many of my coworkers who never had any trouble breathing before September 20.

I’ve never had a rash, but in January I started getting pin pricks all over my body — only at work.

As you can see based on the fact that I stopped wearing the uniform in October but I continue to have reactions at work, it’s not just dermal absorption, like American would want the world to believe, but chemical inhalation, too.

As a woman, I find it offensive when American continues to justify keeping the new uniforms by pointing to the number of flight attendants who like the way it looks. Only in Airline World can management get away with saying something like that, without regard to the fact that 1 out of 10 flight attendants are suffering. Proof that sexism is still alive and well in our female dominated industry.

Since American likes to focus on looks, I’ll speak to you in a language you’ll better understand. Denying what’s going on, instead of protecting employees and getting to the root of the problem, isn’t a good look for American. In fact it’s embarrassing. I’m no longer proud to work for a company that only cares about how we look.

Which brings us to Aramark. I know American wants to make it LOOK like there’s not a problem by giving us an alternative to the Twin Hill uniform. I know American execs want to make it LOOK like they care — to the media. Like they’re doing something about the uniform crisis by offering us a fourth uniform option (never mind the fact that being in close proximity to co-workers still wearing Twin Hill makes us sick). Unfortunately, there’s something wrong with Aramark as well.

I should start by saying that I liked the way Aramark looked, at first. But after my 10 year-old son ended up on beta blockers to slow down his racing heart, it didn’t look so good. This happened while I was trying out the uniform at home to see if I could wear it to work. During that hour, I had a mild reaction to the Aramark uniform. But my son had a terrible reaction. He became dizzy and couldn’t breathe. His heart rate went from 80 to 130 to 150 to 170 in seconds. The doctor did an EKG and issued him a beta blocker. For two days, he couldn’t walk or eat because he was so dizzy.

I bagged up the Aramark uniform and got it out of the house. Two days later my son’s mysterious heart condition disappeared.

Before placing the blame on me — my grooming products (that were never a problem before September 20) like Hector Adler did in December — can you answer a few questions first? Why have we never had reactions to uniforms (or clothing in general) in the past? What’s changed in the uniform business? What do Aramark and Twin Hill have in common?

Let the record state that I will not wear a uniform made by Aramark or Twin Hill, regardless of the cut-off date. My question to you is what will happen to those of us who refuse to wear it? How does American plan to handle people like me who refuse to put themselves in harm’s way? People who choose their health, and the health of their family, over a uniform that looks good?

I look forward to your response,

Heather Poole

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I had no idea that AA flight attendants were having this issue! Thank you for bringing it to greater attention. I fly AA often and will consider this next time I purchase. I am a chemical engineer and I myself allow very few industrial chemicals into my home.

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Heather, all I can say is that its sad to have to live in fear of wearing a piece of clothing. Unfortunely that’s where all of us that are forced to wear this uniform are. I personally refuse to wear the uniform pants for fear of breaking out in some sort of rash on my legs. I also wont tie the scarf at all near any part of my skin. I’ve seen…

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Heather Poole View All →

Yeah, that's me, the one standing in the aisle wearing flammable polyester...

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