Southwest Airlines has sued Colorado state officials in federal court, claiming that a new employee sick leave rule will result in increased aircraft delays and cancellations.
As part of the Healthy Families and Workplaces Act, Colorado adopted a “comprehensive and pervasive paid sick scheme” on January 1, 2021. Southwest has racked up more than $1.3 million in proposed fines for breaking dozens of Colorado labor regulations since it was established.
Employees’ rights to paid sick leave without a doctor’s note are defined in the sick leave law, which also introduces a system in which employees can ‘bank’ sick time based on the number of hours they spend in their job.
Southwest has refused to comply with the law, claiming that Colorado’s rules “clearly contradict” collective bargaining agreements with unions representing several workgroups, including pilots, flight attendants, and mechanics.
Employees can take up to four days of sick leave without a doctor’s note under the Healthy Families and Workplaces Act, and they can 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 accrued sick leave in as small as one-hour increments. Employees can also take up to two weeks of paid leave for COVID-19-related needs, such as vaccination, under an emergency provision of the law.
Southwest also offers paid sick leave to flight attendants, but at a more liberal rate of around 1 hour of sick leave for every 12 hours worked. Without a doctor’s note, flight attendants can take up to seven days of sick leave.
Southwest, on the other hand, gains extra rights under the collective bargaining agreement to monitor sick leave use and “limit abuse” of the system. Southwest, for example, might declare a “state of emergency” during unusual operations, requiring the flight crew to obtain a doctor’s note for any length of sickness.
Employees who take sick leave are also given points, and if they accumulate too many points, they are subject to progressive discipline.
Southwest claims that the legislation clearly provides for an exemption where a collective bargaining agreement is in effect, according to a case filed in Colorado District Court last week. The state’s Department of Labor and Employment, on the other hand, has determined that the exception can only be used if the conditions are at least as favorable as Colorado’s legislation.
Southwest, on the other hand, maintains that the Healthy Families and Workplaces Act is preempted by the Airline Deregulation Act of the 1970s, as well as the Railway Labor Act, which governs collective bargaining agreements between airlines and employees.
“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 claims it will be compelled to hire more employees, resulting in a price hike.
“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.
Southwest is concerned that if the lawsuit is unsuccessful, it will be subjected to uneven state and municipal regulatory frameworks. Arizona, California, Connecticut, Maryland, Oregon, and Washington all have paid sick leave laws in place.
Southwest has filed an appeal against a total of $1,331,400 in fines levied by Colorado labor inspectors. Southwest had piled up $887,600 in fines as of March 2022 for refusing to take paid sick leave as mandated by Colorado’s paid sick leave rules.
At peak times, Southwest operates a major hub out of Denver International Airport, with over 240 flights to about 90 destinations. Southwest Airlines has had a presence in Denver for more than 15 years, and the city’s mayor, Michael B. Hancock, has named November 5 as Southwest Airlines Day.