JetBlue must pay for overtime worked by flight attendants while in California
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Friday, December 15, 2017

JetBlue must pay for overtime worked by flight attendants while in California

By Lorene D. Park, J.D.

Granting in part a motion for partial summary judgment filed by flight attendants who claimed JetBlue violated California law by failing to pay overtime they earned while working intrastate flights, a federal district court in California rejected the airline’s preemption, federal enclave, and Dormant Commerce Clause arguments. However, JetBlue was awarded summary judgment on the state-law claim concerning itemized wage statements because the attendants were not based in California, were not paid in California, and did not spend enough time in the state for that law to apply (Booher v. JetBlue Airways Corp., December 12, 2017, White, J.).

Bidding process. JetBlue operates flights from multiple airports in California and has around 3,692 flight attendants in the United States. Flight attendants’ monthly schedules are based on a bidding process whereby they submit preferences for flight “pairings,” a pre-planned sequence of flights that may consist of one or more flight segments or duty times in which they are not in flight. Schedules fluctuate and depend on their preferences and the seniority-based bid system.

Pre-flight and post-landing work. Attendants generally report to the airport at a designated report time to begin each paired sequence of flights, usually one hour ahead of flight time. They then attend a short briefing, report to the departure gate, and ready the cabin for passengers. The boarding process begins approximate 35 minutes before the departure and the attendants assist with that process. They also assist with deplaning upon arrival and cleaning of the cabin. Their duty period ends 15 minutes after the flight’s arrival.

Ground time between flights. For duty periods with multiple segments, there is time between one segment’s arrival and the next segment’s departure, referred to as “Turn” or “Ground” time. During Ground time, attendants are generally free to attend their own activities without job duties, but must report to the next gate 45 minutes before departure. JetBlue considers Ground time to be duty time for compensation purposes, but if the flight attendant’s duty period ends in a destination other than home, he or she is released from work for a layover, and rest time is not considered to be duty time. Although duty periods include work done in-flight and on the ground, the plaintiffs alleged that JetBlue pays only the hourly rates for time actually in the air.

Lawsuit. They filed suit under California wage and hour laws, alleging unpaid wages, failure to pay overtime, and failure to provide itemized wage statements, among other claims. In prior proceedings, the court granted summary judgment against the minimum wage claim. The plaintiffs have now moved for partial summary judgment as to liability on the remaining claims.

Overtime. It was undisputed the plaintiffs rely on both in-flight and on-the-ground hours to qualify for overtime. The issue for the court was whether hours flying between California airports should be considered hours “worked in California.” JetBlue argued they should not, because: (1) California labor laws are preempted by federal laws regulating air travel; (2) the intrastate flights included time flying over federal enclaves or waters; and (3) requiring JetBlue to comply with California’s overtime laws would violate the Dormant Commerce Clause.

No federal preemption. The court rejected JetBlue’s federal preemption argument, citing to and agreeing with a prior similar case explaining that “[a]lthough the federal government has exclusive sovereignty over the United States airspace and aviation safety, ‘Congress has not occupied the field of employment law in the aviation context and . . . the FAA does not confer upon the agency the exclusive power to regulate all employment matters involving airmen.’”

JetBlue’s federal enclave argument also failed. The plaintiffs claimed they met their initial burden by showing 32 days on which they worked over eight hours in and between California airports, as indicated by JetBlue’s records. Though the records lacked flight path data, the court held that they still provided “a just and reasonable inference that Plaintiffs did work full days within California in which they were eligible for overtime compensation under California law. Because neither party is able to provide evidence of the precise amount of work performed—actual flight paths with contemporaneous time stamps—the burden shifts to JetBlue to negative the reasonableness of Plaintiffs’ theory.” JetBlue failed to meet this burden. While it provided two example flight paths from 2016, that was not enough to show it was unreasonable that at least one of the plaintiff’s 32 alleged overtime days fell within the state’s borders.

The court further held that there was no plausible Dormant Commerce Clause argument because the California Labor Code applies equally to work done in California, whether or not it is performed by a state resident. Thus, “California has chosen to treat out-of-state residents equally with its own.”

JetBlue liable for overtime. Based on the foregoing, the plaintiffs were granted summary judgment with respect to JetBlue’s liability for overtime for duty periods spent in California.

Wage statement claim fails though. Granting summary judgment for JetBlue on the Labor Code Section 226 claim over the alleged failure to provide itemized wage statements, the court concluded that the law did not apply. It pointed to two approaches applied by federal district courts in California, and concluded that both led to the same result. The “job situs” test limits the statute’s application to employees who work principally in California, and the plaintiffs spent most of their working time outside of the state. Nor would Section 226 apply under the multi-factor test, which considers whether the employee resides in, receives pay in, or has a principal job situs in California; whether the employer resides in the state; and whether the employee’s absence from the state is temporary.

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