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Airlines sue Washington over paid sick leave law

Benjamin Romano, The Seattle Times on

Published in Business News

"They're just trying not to have to pay this," Unterseher said. "Same thing with the $15 an hour wage thing that Alaska Airlines fought in SeaTac so hard and ended up having to live with."

A question of domicile

The state Department of Labor & Industries, the state agency charged with implementing and enforcing the paid sick leave law, and the defendant in the airlines' lawsuit, contends that the state's paid sick leave law applies to "Washington domiciled" employees.

According to a footnote in the airlines' complaint, the state has said the law applies regardless of whether and for how long such employees work outside of the state, including in other jurisdictions with their own paid sick leave laws.

An L&I spokesman said the lawsuit is under review by the Washington Attorney General's Office, which will determine the state's next steps. Spokesman Tim Church said airline industry representatives participated in the state's rule-making process for the paid sick leave law last year. They also sought technical assistance from the agency.

"We heard from airline industry representatives who wanted to know how we would interpret basic scenarios," he said. "We connected with them and provided that information."

The question of where an employee is "domiciled" is a critical one for businesses such as airlines that operate nationally, facing a patchwork of wage and benefits requirements, taxation regimes, and other regulations. In the airline industry, it's common for people to commute to work across state lines or across the country.

Does "domiciled" mean the airport from which a flight attendant or pilot is based, or does it mean his or her home address? The answer may change depending on the specific benefit or tax in question.

The airlines would prefer a more uniform landscape, and argue that they're entitled to one under the federal law that deregulated the industry 39 years ago.

"The industry complies with comprehensive federal safety laws and regulations on work hours and staffing, including those related to duty period limitations, flight crew family medical leave, rest requirements, and aviation safety," Alison McAfee, communications director for Airlines for America, said in a statement.

She added that airline flight crews are different from other employees, regularly working across state lines and in federal airspace, with schedules that hardly resemble those of a typical worker putting in 40 hours a week in one location. States, meanwhile, are implementing laws mandating meal breaks, sick leave, and other worker-friendly policies, often designed with the typical, stationary worker in mind.

The lawsuit is part of the industry's effort to "ensure nationwide uniformity in regulation of air carriers," she added.

Airlines have found other ways to deal with the patchwork of regulations. Until recently, Alaska provided to all flight attendants, regardless of their domicile, the most generous benefit required in any jurisdiction where any one flight attendant was based, said Jeffrey Peterson, president of the union representing Alaska Airlines flight attendants.

Alaska referred questions to its trade group, which did not comment beyond its statement.

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