Management vs. State and Local Laws – Part 1
Master Executive Council (MEC), Benefits Committee, Grievance Committee
This is the first in a series reporting on management’s opposition to various state and local laws, the latest developments to complex state law litigations related to these laws that are playing out in Washington and California, and what Flight Attendants can do about it.
Management alleges that certain state and local laws do not apply to flight crew
Airlines For America (A4A) is an American trade association and lobbying group representing major North American air carriers such as Alaska Airlines. A4A and/or Alaska Airlines management has taken the position that the Railway Labor Act (RLA) preempts (i.e., invalidates) certain state and local laws that in its opinion overlaps with, conflicts with or complicates various benefits and provisions provided for in collective bargaining agreements negotiated with labor unions representing flight crew. Simply stated, A4A and Alaska Airlines management are making legal arguments in several jurisdictions (e.g., WA, CA, MA and NY) that specific state and local laws do not apply to Flight Attendants and pilots. However, it is notable that management has been honoring the same laws for ground employees–even if they are also covered by contracts negotiated with their respective labor unions and under the RLA.
Management believes that honoring various local laws for flight crew would ultimately lead to competitive disadvantage and tough business decisions in response
Why? Based on our interactions with management, here are some of the reasons offered by management to justify denying flight crew access to various benefits and protections provided for under what management characterizes as a “patchwork quilt” of state and local laws:
- Administratively burdensome to honor because of the difficulties in tracking the sheer number of such laws and complying with their complexities.
- Some laws may overlap with and/or conflict with one another and may also apply only conditionally based on the real-time location of an individual crewmember.
- Significant challenges with overlaying these laws on top of the provisions of existing collective bargaining agreements (e.g., clock hours versus block hours versus TFP; meal, rest break and wage reporting requirements).
- Honoring such laws for flight crew would create significant operational and financial liabilities for the Company and thereby result in untenable competitive disadvantage. This in turn could lead management to reevaluate the viability of existing crew domiciles in problematic locations and to make tough business decisions about the location of crew domiciles going forward. Management has cautioned your union leadership to beware of the potential for such unintended and undesirable consequences as these would likely be perceived by you as unacceptably disruptive and universally unpopular.
AFA is closely following the preemption litigations with great interest
AFA is closely following the preemption litigations with great interest because the outcomes affect our members at various airlines. However, the legal arguments themselves are generally outside of AFA’s “jurisdiction” in the sense that the Association’s sole duty is to act as the agent for members of the collective bargaining unit under the RLA and to fairly represent them. AFA neither has an obligation to directly participate in the preemption disputes nor has the resources to broadly do so, but nonetheless we have very strategically chosen to intervene in some of the preemption litigations over the past ten years. Several current and former MEC officers and chairpersons have been directly involved in a few cases as complainants, subject matter experts and/or deposed witnesses.
Washington Family Care Act: Alaska Airlines v. Schurke (WA L&I)
In approximately 2012, Alaska Airlines sued the State of Washington regarding provisions of the Washington Family Care Act (WFCA), alleging that the WFCA does not apply to Washington-domiciled Flight Attendants. AFA intervened as a defendant in the suit, as this was a case of first impression, and we wanted our interests protected in an area of law not yet addressed.
The case was initially decided in favor of the State of Washington and AFA. Alaska Airlines appealed the case to the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. A panel of three justices decided in Alaska Airlines’ favor. At that point, the State of Washington and AFA requested an en banc opinion, with all justices making a decision.
In August 2018, the en banc opinion ruled in favor of the State of Washington and AFA. Alaska Airlines then filed an appeal with the United States Supreme Court. The US Supreme Court did not grant the writ of certiori, which means it did not accept the case, and the 9th Circuit ruling stands in favor of the State of Washington and AFA.
The case went back to a state administrative hearing, and the administrative law judge ruled for the State of Washington and AFA. Alaska Airlines then appealed this ruling. We are currently awaiting a ruling on the appellate case, which hopefully will be issued within the next few months. In the meantime, Alaska Airlines is still not honoring this law.
Washington Paid Sick Leave: A4A v. WA L&I and Joel Sacks
In early 2018, AFA demanded that Alaska Airlines comply with a new State of Washington law: Washington Paid Sick Leave (WPSL) law. Alaska’s response to AFA’s formal demand was to have A4A file suit against the State of Washington on behalf of all airlines it represents. Again, AFA was an intervenor in this lawsuit. The State of Washington and AFA won this suit in a summary judgment motion; A4A appealed the ruling.
On November 17, 2020, the parties argued in front of the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, and a decision was returned very recently that ruled in favor of the State of Washington and AFA. At this juncture, AFA has every reason to believe that A4A will attempt an appeal with the US Supreme Court. In the meantime, Alaska Airlines is still not complying with the law.
California overtime, meal & rest breaks, and wage statement laws: Bernstein v. Virgin America
In 2018, a California state court ruled in favor of Virgin America Flight Attendants, which resulted in an initial award of just under $78 million when factoring in legal fees and other costs. Alaska Airlines appealed this judgment, and it currently remains in the appeal process.
California wage statement laws: Gunther v. Alaska Air Group Inc.
In May 2019, a California state court ruled in favor of an Alaska Airlines Flight Attendant who brought her own wage statement non-compliance lawsuit against Alaska Air Group. The court ruled against Alaska Airlines on behalf of all California-domiciled Flight Attendants and issued an award of $25 million. Seventy-five percent of the award is to be paid to the State of California, and the remaining twenty-five percent of the award is to be paid to California-domiciled Flight Attendants with no more than $4,000 to each Flight Attendant. Alaska Airlines also appealed this judgment, and it is presently still in the appeals process.
New and Pre-Existing Laws Denied
In response to litigation of the Washington State leave laws initiated directly by Alaska Airlines management or indirectly via Airlines for America (A4A), management has simply denied flight crew access to the benefits of new laws. Management also retracted a Flight Attendant’s ability to use several state laws already existing at the time litigation was filed. One example of such retraction is the California Family School Partnership Act, which management allowed California-domiciled Flight Attendants to use for many years prior.
Next Up (in “Management vs. State and Local Laws – Part 2”)
- Applicable State Laws
- WA Long Term Care Trust Act Opt-Out Information
- Filing a Claim with the Appropriate Agency