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Airline industry alert: US District Court rules in favour of flight crew on paid sick leave challenge

Written by
FordHarrison LLP, nationwide U.S. law firm with a singular focus on HR law.
A US District Court in Washington has ruled that Washington’s paid sick leave law does not violate the Constitution or the principle that federal law takes precedence over state law, and can therefore apply to flight crew.  

Executive summary

On 11 October 2019, a federal judge for the US District Court for the Western District of Washington ruled that Washington state’s paid sick leave law does not violate the Constitution or federal preemption law, thereby guaranteeing sick leave benefits for airline flight crew employees based in Washington.


Effective 1 January 2018, the Washington Paid Sick Leave Law (WPSLL) mandates paid sick leave accrual for employees in the state, and it prohibits an employer from requiring medical verification, disciplining workers for use of sick leave, and preventing workers from using leave in one-hour increments. The law applies to all employees who are ‘Washington-based’, which is determined on a case-by-case basis by applying several factors, including, among other factors:

  • where the employment agreement was made;
  • whether the employee lives in Washington;
  • whether the employer has its base of operations in Washington;
  • whether the employee has his or her base of operations in Washington;
  • whether the employer maintains a worksite in Washington; and
  • if the employee leaves Washington as part of his or her work, where the trip begins and ends.


Being domiciled at a Washington airport may be enough for an employee to qualify as ‘Washington-based’, so long as other factors are also satisfied, such as an employee working for an airline with ties to the state.

Although many pilot and flight attendant collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) already provide for paid sick leave, the WPSLL provides additional protections beyond those set forth in the CBAs and, in some cases, the WPSLL conflicts with CBA sick leave provisions. For example, under the terms of particular CBAs, employees may face disciplinary action for sick calls, and air carriers are permitted to demand medical verification for sick leave use in certain circumstances. The WPSLL does not allow for a waiver of its requirements pursuant to a CBA.

The legal action

In 2018, Airlines for America (A4A), an association representing several US air carriers, filed an action against the Washington Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) and its director, challenging the WPSLL and seeking to have the law declared unconstitutional. Association of Flight Attendants-Communication Workers of America, AFL-CIO (AFA), intervened in the suit to represent flight crew workers.

In its legal action, A4A argued that the additional protections provided for in the WPSLL would increase flight crew absences, resulting in increased flight delays, cancellations, and additional costs. Further, A4A argued that the law would conflict with the sick leave laws of other jurisdictions, thereby resulting in a patchwork of regulations that would raise consumer prices and burden the airlines. Therefore, argued A4A, the WPSLL violated the US Constitution’s Dormant Commerce Clause (which prohibits state legislation that impedes inter-state or international commerce).

A4A also contended that the WPSLL is preempted by the Airline Deregulation Act (meaning this federal law has precedence over it) and that it violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause (which reads ‘nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law’).

Conversely, L&I and AFA argued that the sick leave law’s health benefits outweighed any burdens on interstate commerce. They further argued that the law is not preempted by the Airline Deregulation Act because the law does not have a sufficient impact on the rate, routes, or services offered by the airlines, and, finally, that the law does not violate the Due Process clause because it only regulates activities of parties with significant ties to Washington. Ultimately, the court agreed with the position of L&I and AFA, and granted summary judgement to the defendants.

The Court’s rationale

Turning first to A4A’s Dormant Commerce Clause argument, the court found that the sick leave law does not substantially impact interstate commerce, as needed in order for a regulation to be struck down under the Dormant Commerce Clause. The court noted that, although an analysis under the Dormant Commerce Clause normally begins with whether the challenged law discriminates against out-of-state interests, A4A did not argue that the law was discriminatory. Therefore, explained the court, the law would be found invalid only if the burden it places on interstate commerce is ‘clearly excessive in relation to the putative local benefits.’

Here, A4A argued that the law imposes an unmanageable administrative or financial burden. To that end, A4A contended that compliance with the law would require the airlines to reconfigure IT systems to track sick leave, renegotiate CBAs, and navigate a complex overlapping of state and local sick leave regulations. A4A also argued the law would result in an increase in sick leave abuse, creating a burden on the interstate movement of goods and people by increasing flight delays and cancellations.

The court disagreed, finding no evidence that compliance with the law would result in increased flight delays or cancellations. The court found further that the health and safety benefits of the WPSLL outweighed any minimal impact on interstate commerce, citing ‘the heightened potential for spreading disease on crowded airplanes[.]’ The court concluded, ‘[w]eighing these benefits against the limited burden on interstate commerce, WPSLL does not violate the Dormant Commerce Clause.’

Turning next to the Airline Deregulation Act, the court found that the Act does not preempt the WPSLL. The court noted that the Act was passed to ‘promote efficiency, innovation, and low prices in the airline industry through maximum reliance on competitive market forces and on actual and potential competition,’ and that any state law ‘related to a price, route, or service of an air carrier’ will be found preempted under the Act (that is, the Act will take precedence over that state law). Here, the court reasoned that the WPSLL does not have a ‘significant impact’ on airline routes, prices, or services, and that the effects of the sick leave law were ‘too far removed’ from the point of sale for preemption under the Act.

Finally, the court found no violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process guarantee. The court explained that in order to comply with the requirement for Due Process, a state ‘must have a significant contact or significant aggregation of contacts to activity in a foreign jurisdiction before it can apply its law extraterritorially,’ and that ‘[a] state court is rarely forbidden by the Constitution to apply its own state’s law.’ The court reasoned that the WPSLL does not impede Due Process, because the sick leave law only applies to employees with strong ties to the state of Washington. On these grounds, the court upheld the validity of the WPSLL and granted summary judgment to L&I and AFA.

A4A Response and Similar Lawsuits

Following the decision in this case, A4A indicated that it is reviewing the ruling and:

‘will continue to seek nationwide uniformity in the regulation of air carriers to ensure that our airlines’ highly mobile workforces are treated fairly and consistently throughout their entire operations, regardless of which airport any given flight crew flies into and out of on any given day.’

While the A4A may appeal this decision to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, it is unlikely that they will find a sympathetic ear. The Ninth Circuit has recently ruled against the airlines in similar cases regarding state and local minimum wage and other employment laws, as well as holding that the Railway Labor Act did not preempt Washington’s sick leave laws.

This is one of several recent legal actions filed by airlines seeking an exemption from state and local sick leave laws. Two other cases challenging sick leave laws are currently pending in Massachusetts and New York. Presently, eleven states, the District of Columbia, and 22 localities have enacted paid sick leave laws.