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Biden Administration Backs Flight Attendants in Supreme Court Dispute Over California Rest Break Laws

Biden Administration Backs Flight Attendants in Supreme Court Dispute Over California Rest Break Laws

The Solicitor General has asked the Supreme Court not to bother taking on an appeal that pits the airline industry against flight attendants in a long-running dispute over California’s employee meal break regulations.

In a written submission to the Supreme Court, Elizabeth Prelogar concluded that a request for review by Alaska Airlines of a lower court’s decision should be rejected despite acknowledging that the lower court might have been confused about conflicting FAA rules that usually govern flight attendant rest breaks.

The case was brought by a group of flight attendants at the now-defunct Virgin America airline who accused the carrier of not providing them with legally mandated rest and meal breaks as set out under California’s labor laws.

The labor code requires employers in nearly every industry to give staff who work for more than five hours an uninterrupted 30-minute meal break. A second break is required for employees who work for more than 10 hours and transportation workers are generally entitled to an additional 10-minute break for every four hours at work.

In 2015, Virgin America flight attendant Julia Bernstein brought a class action suit against her employer on the grounds the San Mateo-based airline was violating California’s labor codes by not giving flight attendants working on intrastate trips the required meal breaks.

Virgin America fought back arguing that meal breaks for flight attendants were governed by less generous rules contained within the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 and federal rules superseded state laws.

A San Francisco appeals court dismissed that argument and sided with the flight attendants. Alaska Airlines, which bought Virgin America in 2016, continues to appeal the verdict and has demanded a review by the Supreme Court.

The airline industry has warned ticket prices will need to go up should the verdict stand because carrier’s will have to employ more flight attendants in order to comply with the rest and meal break rules.

The Biden administration agrees with that assessment and even concedes that FAA rules likely supersede California labor rules but Prelogar has asked the Supreme Court not the intervene.

Industry lobby group Airlines for America reacted with dismay to the Solicitor General’s brief saying it sent a “mixed message”.

“The conflict between federal and state law is a critical issue with nationwide implications, and we hope the Supreme Court will grant review on the merits and reverse the Ninth Circuit’s decision in the Bernstein case,” the group, which represents Alaska along with a slew of other major carriers said on Wednesday.

The Supreme Court is yet to decide whether to grant a review of the lower court’s verdict.

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