Airline Must Pay Worker Leave to Care for Sick Relatives

Federal employment law does not exempt United Airlines from a California law requiring  paid sick leave to employees in the state so they may care for sick relatives, a state appeals court ruled Friday.

United told Kathleen Wentworth she could not use a portion of her paid sick leave to care for her dying mother under its contract and told her to take time off without pay.  The First District Court of Appeal ruling upholds a trial court decision that United’s Sick Leave Plan, which does not provide sick leave to attend the illness of a parent, child or spouse, must comply with California’s Kin Care Law.

The Kin Care Law provides that any employer who violates the law may be subject to a worker’s claim to reinstatement to their job and actual damages, or one day’s pay, whichever is greater.

United had argued its sick leave plan was governed by the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act, (ERISA), and thus exempt from state regulation.

The appeals panel said the airline’s plan was not within the scope of ERISA and the Airline Pilots Association had standing to sue on behalf of California-based pilots.

United created its sick leave plan in 1989 to provide uniform benefits and administration across the country for all its employees, without having to comply with specific state laws.

The lawsuit was originally filed in 2007 by three pilots and their union claiming violations of the plan.

The trial court ruled that United’s trust set up to pay the benefits did not comply with the Dept. of Labor criteria for ERISA trusts.  ERISA is designed to protect the interests of workers and their beneficiaries over pension and benefit plans, to avoid abuse.

The union sought restitution for pilots denied paid sick leave to care for a relative and injunction requiring United to provide the paid leave benefits to California-based pilots.

The appeals court held the union had standing to bring the claims and upheld the lower court.

Case: Airline Pilots Assoc. v. United Airlines. No. A129914



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