A new lawsuit against American Airlines could help decide whether flight attendants are classed as ‘manual workers’ under New York state law – a class of worker which was traditionally reserved for labourers, mechanics and workingman whose jobs involved physical labor.
The class action suit is being brought by Barron Chisolm-Lucas, an American Airlines flight attendant who had been working out of the carrier’s New York JFK and LaGuardia hubs until March 2023 and is claiming damages back to when he joined the airline in 2016.
Barron argues that flight attendants spend at least a quarter of their working day engaged in physical labor which qualifies them to be classed as ‘manual worker’s under New York’s Labor Code and, as such, grants them special rights about how their wages are paid.
In the suit, Barron lists the various activities that make up the physical labor side of his job, including “providing beverage and/or food service during flight, providing customer service, including, but not limited ti, assistance with luggage, providing blankets, pillows and earphones, cleaning and collecting trash on the plane.”
An oddity of New York labor law is that employees who are classed as ‘manual workers’ are meant to be paid weekly and not later than seven days after the end of the week in which the wages are earned.
Large employers, like American Airlines, are, however, allowed to apply for an exemption allowing them to pay employees bi-monthly, and that’s exactly what the airline has done.
But the lawsuit alleges: “American Airlines has not paid its New York-based flight attendants – all of whom ostensibly are manual labourers, every seven days, or even bi-weekly”.
“Instead [American Airlines] takes between a full month to 45 days to pay Plaintiff and the Class for wages earned during half of its bi-monthly pay periods as the wage statements for these pay periods and the amounts paid for them do not reflect or constitute any wages at all all”.
The reason for this is that AA’s payroll system for flight attendants divides the month in two, and the first pay period of the month is simply an estimate based on the hours that a crew member is meant to work.
The second and final pay period of the month recovers that estimated amount and returns a final figure with what was actually worked.
“One of the primary purposes of New York’s frequency of payment law is to ensure that workers receive payment as often as possible to meet their expenses and avoid going into debt unnecessarily,” the suit explains.
But Barron claims AA’s pay schedules “underpay flight attendants for work performed during the first half of the month then attempt to pay all wages in the second half of the month.”
The question is, are flight attendants ‘manual workers’? Generally speaking, New York defines anyone who spends at least 25% of their working day doing manual or physical labor, as a manual worker.
This has since been held to possibly even include standing up for long periods of time. Everyday activities like cleaning and stocking shelves have also been held to be manual work that grants employees extra protections under New York’s labor code.
Following a legal ruling in 2019, there has been a growth in similar claims in New York. That ruling stated that employers could be liable for liquidated damages on all of the wages that were paid late – in this, not within seven days of the week that they were earned.
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.