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Chicago flight attendant who lost husband to illness wins paid sick leave battle for aviation workers: 'It is an incredible gift to be able to give back, despite my grief'

Karen Ann Cullotta, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Health & Fitness

“Southwest was really good about letting me take the days off, but I was not getting paid, and by that point, I was the primary wage earner responsible for paying our family’s bills, and also caring for a sick spouse,” King said.

It would take four years and frequent trips to Springfield to plead with lawmakers before King’s goal of extending the state’s paid sick leave to airline employees neared the finish line, said Illinois state Sen. Michael Hastings, a suburban Chicago Democrat who wrote the original bill.

The Frankfort lawmaker, who learned of King’s quest from a mutual friend, said he was immediately drawn to the cause.

“To me, it’s a no-brainer. … Excluding aviation workers from paid sick leave was just plain stupid,” said Hastings, who said three weeks after meeting King, she phoned his office and told him her husband had died.

“When we first started, I told Corliss, ‘you guys have no idea what you’re up against … It’s the equivalent of the Bad News Bears playing the New York Yankees,’” Hastings said.

Despite the arrival of what Hastings described as a contingent of “highly paid lobbyists hired by the airline industry” flying to Springfield from Washington aiming to block the move, King remained undeterred.

 

Opponents invoked the national Railway Labor Act to argue against including aviation employees in the state’s paid sick leave law. The federal law, which was enacted in 1926 and later amended to include airlines, was intended to “avoid any interruption of interstate commerce by providing for the prompt disposition of disputes between carriers and their employees and protects the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively,” according to the Department of Transportation website.

But Hastings said the original intent of the law was to prevent mass disruptions to the U.S. economy, not to quash the “health and welfare rights of employees in a particular state,” Hastings said.

Hastings advised King and her fellow members of Transport Workers Union Local 556 to make their presence known in Springfield by arriving in their uniforms and speaking directly to lawmakers as they arrived at the state capitol.

The legislation passed the Illinois Senate in the spring but stalled in the House. Hastings and fellow Sen. Ram Villivalam, a Chicago Democrat, moved to have the airline workers legislation bundled into the transportation omnibus bill, which passed in late October. Pritzker signed the bill into law Dec. 10.

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