SEATTLE -- Airlines are suing Washington state to avoid complying with the mandatory paid sick leave law that took effect Jan. 1.
Airlines for America, a trade association that includes Alaska Airlines, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, United Parcel Service and others, argues that the paid sick leave mandate, when applied to Washington-based pilots and flight attendants who spend most of their working hours outside of Washington, is unconstitutional and contravenes the federal Airline Deregulation Act.
It also claims airlines already provide paid sick leave benefits, negotiated through collective bargaining agreements, that in some ways are more generous than what Washington now requires.
In 2016, Washington voters passed Initiative 1433, which, in addition to increasing the statewide minimum wage, requires all Washington employers to provide employees at least one hour of paid sick leave for every 40 hours worked. It allows employees to take leave for illness and healthcare needs -- both their own and those of their family members, including siblings – and to seek treatment or services related to domestic violence.
In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court in Tacoma, the airlines assert that the U.S. Constitution limits states' power to pass laws affecting interstate commerce, and that "(u)niformity in regulation of air carriers from one end of a route to another is a national necessity."
Regulations requiring paid sick leave enacted by Washington and some 35 other state and local jurisdictions "impose different (and inconsistent) obligations on air carriers," the trade group says in its complaint. "For example, a flight crew departing from SeaTac International Airport, landing in Portland International Airport, and continuing to San Diego International Airport is subject to three different paid sick leave laws in a single duty period, each with its own accrual, compensation, reporting, and leave requirements."
Flight attendants unions, local and national, pledged to fight the lawsuit, even though some acknowledged that they have better sick leave benefits than required in the Washington law.
Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said the suit has "no merit."
"As long as airlines operate in the state, they are subject to state laws," Nelson said in a statement. "This is not the first time a local or state law has affected the industry."
Gregory Unterseher, director of representation at the Airline Pilots Association Teamsters Local 1224, the union for pilots at carriers including Alaska-owned Horizon Air, said the lawsuit is "about the bottom line."
"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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