Pension & Benefits News Washington’s Paid Sick Leave Law properly applied to airline flight crew employees
Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Washington’s Paid Sick Leave Law properly applied to airline flight crew employees

By Pension and Benefits Editorial Staff

The State of Washington was granted a motion for summary judgment against a challenge to its Paid Sick Leave Law (WPSLL) brought by the airline industry. A federal district court in Washington rejected an industry association’s contentions that the law violated the Dormant Commerce Clause and was preempted by the Airline Deregulation Act (ADA). The court pointed out that Congress has explicitly permitted local laws ensuring employment benefits beyond those contemplated in federal statutes. Moreover, it noted that the WPSLL only applied to employees with strong ties to the state.

Sick leave law. The WPSLL guarantees accrual of paid sick leave hours and prohibits employers from requesting medical verification of illness, disciplining employees for using their leave, and preventing employees from using leave in one-hour increments. In this lawsuit, the association representing airlines challenged WPSLL as applied to flight crew employees.

According to the airlines, the protections afforded under the WPSLL would increase the rate of flight crew absences. They also argued that WPSLL conflicts with other jurisdictions’ sick leave laws, contributing to a patchwork of regulations that will burden the airlines and raise consumer prices. Consequently, they argued that the WPSLL violates the U.S. Constitution’s Dormant Commerce Clause. They also contend that the state law violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause and is preempted by the ADA. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment.

Sick leave policies. Pilots and flight attendants already enjoy paid sick leave under their company-specific collective bargaining agreements, which provide for sick leave accrual, banking, and rollover that generally meet or exceed the WPSLL’s requirements. However, the CBAs do not contain all the additional protections provided by WPSLL.

The airlines retain several bargained-for methods of controlling flight crew attendance, which are the main focus of this case. The airlines also retain the right to demand that an employee provide medical verification when they take a sick day.

Commerce Clause. The airlines argued that the WPSLL’s burden on interstate commerce is "clearly excessive in relation to the putative local benefits." They identified two broad burdens on interstate commerce. First, they contend that the WPSLL creates administrative and financial burdens by regulating in areas that require uniform national standards. Specifically, the airlines assert that complying with the Washington law will require airlines to reconfigure IT systems to track protected sick leave, renegotiate CBAs, and navigate a complex and overlapping patchwork of local sick leave regulations. Further, they argued that the WPSLL will lead to more abuse of sick leave, which will burden the interstate movement of goods and people

Finally, addressing the "local benefits" prong, the airlines claimed that the WPSLL provides few benefits over the paid sick leave that flight crew members already receive under their CBAs.

Administrative and financial burdens. The court rejected the airlines’ argument that WPSLL creates an unmanageable administrative burden by regulating in an area where national uniformity is necessary. Instrumentalities of interstate commerce are not automatically beyond the reach of all state regulation. Congress has explicitly permitted local laws ensuring employment benefits beyond those contemplated in federal statutes. Moreover, the court noted that the multi-factor analysis used by the state Department of Labor and Industry (DOLI) to determine if an employee is Washington-based provides broad patterns that allow the airlines to accurately identify which employees are covered by the WPSLL, so the practical application of the law and its relationship to other jurisdictions’ sick leave laws do not create an unmanageable tangle of conflicting regulations. Thus, the court found it hard to imagine how this factor could be outcome-determinative.

Further, the court rejected the airlines’ argument that the WPSLL is per se unconstitutional if it pushes companies to reform their system-wide sick leave policies as the most efficient means of compliance. Also, to the extent that the statute could potentially overlap other jurisdictions’ sick leave laws, it still did not excessively burden commerce. Therefore, the court concluded that the financial burdens imposed by WPSLL alone were not enough to make it unconstitutional simply because aviation is an interstate industry.

Transportation of goods and passengers. Next, the airlines argued that the WPSLL would directly impede the flow of goods and passengers. Specifically, they contended that significant delays would result from any law restricting the airlines’ ability to threaten discipline and request verification when employees call in sick. However, the court found that the evidence did not show that the WPSLL would substantially increase flight delays and cancellations or that the airlines lack the ability to mitigate any limited impact on operations. To the extent that WPSLL may have some impact on sick leave abuse, the airlines have tools to feasibly mitigate those effects. Moreover, the WPSLL’s protections also have limitations. Employers may require notice "as soon as possible" before the start of the employee’s shift "unless it is not practicable to do so." Second, the statute only protects employees for authorized uses of sick leave. If an employee abuses sick leave, his or her employer can withhold pay.

Local benefits. The court next concluded that in light of the WPSLL’s insubstantial impact on commerce, the burdens created by the law were not "clearly excessive in relation to the putative local benefits." Although flight crews already accrue paid sick leave under their CBAs, the airlines’ policy of assigning points and requiring verification discourages employees from using their leave, especially for early-stage or non-debilitating illnesses.

Preemption. The airlines also argued that the ADA’s preemption clause applied to the WPSLL. When it passed the ADA in 1978, Congress included a provision preempting any state law "related to a price, route, or service of an air carrier." Here, the court determined that the WPSLL’s effects are too far removed from the point of sale for ADA preemption. WPSLL does not dictate what routes and services the airlines provide or the prices they charge for them. Instead, Washington’s law controls how airlines must treat their employees. Given that laws governing employee benefits like sick leave were within the state’s traditional police power, WPSLL’s indirect effects were not enough to defeat the presumption against preemption.

SOURCE: Air Transport Association of America dba Airlines for America v. Washington Department of Labor & Industries,(W.D. Wash.), No. 18-cv-05092-RBL. October 11, 2019.

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