Southwest Airlines has filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Colorado state officials because it claims a new employee sick leave law will lead to more flight delays and cancellations.
Colorado’s “comprehensive and pervasive paid sick scheme” was enacted on January 1, 2021, as part of the Healthy Families and Workplaces Act. Since it was introduced, Southwest has racked up more than $1.3 million in proposed fines for violating dozens of Colorado labor laws.
The sick leave law gives employees enshrined rights to take paid leave sick without the need for a doctor’s note, as well as introducing a system in which employees can ‘bank’ sick leave based on the number of hours they work in their job.
Southwest has refused to abide by the law because it believes Colorado’s laws directly “contradict” collective bargaining agreements that it has reached with unions representing various workgroups including pilots, flight attendants and mechanics.
The Healthy Families and Workplaces Act gives employees the right to take up to four days of sick leave without a doctor’s note and to accrue paid sick leave at a rate of one hour per 30 hours worked up to a maximum of 48 hours per year.
Employees can use their banked sick leave in increments as little as one hour. An emergency element of the law also allows employees to take up to two weeks of paid leave for COVID-19 related needs including vaccination.
Southwest also allows flight attendants to accrue paid sick leave but at a more generous rate equivalent to approximately 1 hour of sick leave for every 12 hours worked. Flight attendants are also able to take up to seven days of sick leave without a doctor’s note.
However, the collective bargaining agreement gives Southwest more rights to monitor the use of sick and “limit abuse” of the system. For example, during irregular operations, Southwest can institute a ‘state of emergency’ which requires flight crew to provide a doctor’s note for any length of sickness.
The airline also assesses points for employees who take sick leave and imposes progressive discipline when an employee accrues too many points.
In its complaint filed in Colorado District Court last week, Southwest says the law specifically provides for an exemption where a collective bargaining agreement is in force. However, the state’s Department of Labor and Employment has concluded that the exemption can only be applied when the conditions are at least as favourable as Colorado’s laws.
But Southwest claims the Healthy Families and Workplaces Act is preempted by the 1970s era Airline Deregulation Act, as well as the Railway Labor Act under which collective bargaining agreements between airlines and employees are drawn up.
“Among other effects, the HFWA significantly impacts Southwest’s services by severely constraining Southwest’s ability to monitor and prevent abuse of sick leave. Sick-leave abuse, in turn, already causes flight delays and cancellations,” the airline says in its lawsuit.
Southwest says it would be forced to hire more staff which in turn would lead to an increase in prices.
“The HFWA also will require Southwest to increase the reserve pool headcount for flight crew personnel to guard against potential service interruptions caused by high levels of pilot and flight attendant sick calls,” the lawsuit continues.
If the lawsuit fails, Southwest says it fears it would be subjected to inconsistent state and municipal regulatory regimes. Paid sick leave laws are already in effect in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Maryland, Oregon, and Washington.
Southwest has filed an appeal against a slew of fines imposed by Colorado labor officials that total $1,331,400. As of March 2022, Southwest has racked up $887,600 in fines for refusing paid sick leave as required under Colorado’s paid sick leave laws.
Southwest operates a massive hub out of Denver international airport, offering more than 240 flights to around 90 destinations at peak times. The airline has had a presence in Denver for more than 15-years and is so highly regarded that Denver mayor Michael B. Hancock declared November 5 as Southwest Airlines Day.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.