Plaintiffs accuse Nordica of duress

Nordica lennuk.

PHOTO: Jaanus Lensment

Former employees of Estonian Air say the government could have done a lot more to make sure the airline’s 182 employees would not be left penniless after its bankruptcy. Several are risking their career in Estonian aviation by demanding backpay and benefits in court from Estonian Air’s successor Nordica that has a lot of power over its employees.

Plaintiffs were called in for a private meeting with executives after investigative journalism program “Pealtnägija” published a piece on former Estonian Air employees’ court battle with Nordica earlier this year.

“The meeting was with the company’s lawyer, a member of the board and head of HR. We were asked about our dissatisfaction and finally what would motivate us to withdraw the action,” a Nordica pilot who asked to remain anonymous said. “When we didn’t take back the action, it came back to bite us both directly and indirectly,” he added.

Pressure from above

The captain explained that plaintiffs are not included in competitions to fill new positions and that managers have told him that plaintiffs will likely have a short career at the airline.

“Let’s say it is likely we have achieved all we’re going to achieve in this company. Our kind will probably not be promoted,” the pilot said.

Head of communication and former supervisory board member of Nordica Toomas Uibo refuted claims according to which the airline has put pressure on employees.

“Nordica has definitely not pressured current employees to drop their suit,” Uibo said. “We believe everyone has the constitutional right to try and solve their problems in court and that it is something their employer must accept.”

Former employees of Estonian Air are demanding redundancy payments and their last salary which they never received. All in all, 182 employees of the national airline missed a total of almost €4 million half a million of which was covered by the unemployment insurance fund.

65 employees turned to court, looking to collect their missed redundancy pay from Nordica. A dozen plaintiffs have dropped out by today. Claims of the remaining approximately 50 employees range from €4,000 to €81,000 for a total of €1.56 million.

Postimees talked to around ten former employees suing the airline. Because Estonian aviation virtually starts and stops with national airline Nordica, Postimees will not be disclosing their names.

By the time experienced flight trainer Ivar (name changed – ed.) returned from a business trip, Estonian Air had already gone under. “Plan B is in motion,” he was told from Tallinn in late fall 2015. Ivar, who had worked for Estonian Air for decades and climbed high in the company’s ranks, returned from what would be his last business trip in Estonian aviation on another airline’s plane.

Back home, Ivar and 181 of his colleagues found themselves out of work. He had a hard time understanding it at first.

“It turned out I could not collect my things from the office, everything was labeled Nordica and Estonian Air keycards had already been deactivated,” he said.

It soon turned out that the redundancy payment the state’s representatives had promised Ivar would not be available. Nor would he get his last salary. The unemployment insurance fund only covered a trifling sum.

Ivar soon added his claim to those of other plaintiffs. The aviation expert tried to get a position with Nordica after that but was not hired. He was told all relevant positions had been filled. Ivar believes he was turned away because of the lawsuit.

“If there are candidates who did not make the cut and say it is because they filed a claim, that is not true,” Uibo said on behalf of Nordica.

Ivar’s life spiraled. His relationship deteriorated and finally ended. He eventually left Estonia and found work abroad after spending a year unemployed.

No help from the state

Other employees said that once it became clear Estonian Air would go bankrupt, their employer first asked them to leave voluntarily so the firm would not have to make redundancy payments.

“I sincerely hope that this is not a case of blackmail where if you don’t leave voluntarily, we’ll bankrupt the company,” Chairman of the Riigikogu Eiki Nestor said in 2015. “Signals reached me that pressure was put on employees to sign letters of resignation,” health and labor minister at the time Jevgeni Ossinovski added.

Employees say that is exactly what happened. “That is what they did. They told us to resign. Because the matter reached the parliament and the info got out, nothing came of it. That is when they simply decided not to pay us,” the former instructor said. “The state’s representative looked us in the eye and said we would get our money. A few months later, we were left with nothing,” another former employee added.

“The government decided to pay passengers compensation of around €5 million. But they couldn’t find a few million for employees,” a third pilot said.

The mentality of former Estonian Air employees is perhaps best summed up in the words of former pilot and current plaintiff who flew Estonian Air’s last flight – Immanuel Pärt: “We are standing in front of the state’s desk and looking at an empty paper: so long, worker bees; it was fun while it lasted. It would be best if you would stop your buzzing and let us get back to covering it up.”

Chairman of the Estonian Trade Unions Confederation Peep Peterson was and remains disappointed in the attitude of the government’s representatives in this matter. Peterson claims he was told the government has no legal basis on which to compensate employees. The unions representative disagrees.

“I believe that had the state spent even a little time weighing its options and looking for a way, the result would be better for everyone today,” Peterson said.