JetBlue's Steven Slater Offers Amusing Glimpse at a Dark Problem

Steven Slater Jet Blue
Steven Slater Jet Blue

With his (literally) explosive exit from a JetBlue (JBLU) airplane on Monday, Steven Slater earned himself a quick ticket into the pantheon of middle class heroes. Quickly spawning dozens of supportive Facebook pages, his fans have advocated everything from making Slater a judge on American Idol to putting him in the White House. Most of all, his more than a quarter million Facebook followers agree that JetBlue shouldn't fire him.

It isn't hard to see why Slater touched a nerve. After all, with unemployment currently at 9.5% and underemployment holding steady at 16.5%, few workers feel like they're in a position to grumble too loudly about work conditions, much less quit their jobs. This problem is especially pressing among flight attendants: in 2008, when the airline industry was nearing bankruptcy, several carriers cut back staff and reduced wages for flight crews. According to a representative of the association of flight attendants (AFA), the average monthly workload for a flight attendant has increased by 14% over the past ten years at the same time that salaries have fallen.

This problem isn't limited to flight attendants -- for that matter, neither are explosive outbursts. Less than a week before Slater deplaned, a Connecticut beer distributor was brutalized by a workplace shooting spree, the worst in the state's history. The gunman, 34-year-old Omar S. Thornton, was a truck driver for the company; fired for workplace theft, he proceeded to kill eight people before committing suicide. Since the event, commentators have struggled to explain Thornton's outburst, questioning whether his assertions of racism were legitimate and may have inspired his final act of brutality. A point that seems to have slipped through the cracks, however, is that Thornton had a history of money troubles, including a bankruptcy filing in 2000. In fact, the day of the shooting, a bill collector allegedly tried to reach him at his girlfriend's house. Facing a brutal job market with limited financial resources, it isn't hard to imagine how Thornton might have snapped.

In their respective acts, Slater and Thornton represent opposite ends of a workplace exit spectrum. One has thrilled disgruntled workers all over the country while the other has horrified virtually everyone, but both reflect a growing trend. Work-related stress -- and the fantasy of escaping it -- is a theme that is increasingly bubbling up on the Web. Earlier this week, Jenny, the famed Whiteboard HPOA, captured the interest of millions by resigning through a series of funny and humiliating photos. Although the resignation turned out to be a hoax, the disgruntled former employee -- actually actress Elyse Porterfield -- grabbed the pop-culture spotlight for 24 hours, quickly generating Facebook fan pages and support across the Internet.

Porterfield's staged exit tapped into a popular phenomenon: the angry worker (or former worker) airing dirty laundry on social media. The most influential version of this is probably Jackie Ramos, the fired Bank of America employee who followed up her December 2009 dismissal with a searing online attack on her former employer. However, while outbursts like Slater's and Ramos' are undoubtedly satisfying, few employees can afford to threaten their employability in such an extravagant manner. For most workers who are clinging to soul-sucking, stressful and poorly-paying jobs, it seems likely that resignation porn will remain little more than a pleasant diversion.