California Court: Flight Attendants Require Rest & Meal Breaks

Published on February 26, 2021

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling in a lawsuit that accused Virgin America of failing to pay flight attendants for hours they spent undergoing training, taking mandatory drug tests, completing reports or working before and after flights. Additionally, the airline did not provide the flight attendants with accurate wage statements, pay overtime or allow them to take meal or rest breaks.

The decision dated February 23, 2021, overturned their request for minimum wage and unpaid hours but affirms many of the claims the Virgin Flight Attendants raised and this could cause changes among airlines with California based flight attendants without a union collective bargaining agreement. Flight attendants with contracts will likely have more bargaining power come renegotiation.

California Based Flight Attendants Require Rest & Meal Breaks

Alaska Airlines, who has purchased and merged with Virgin America since the lawsuit filing, argued that they didn’t have to provide for rest and meal breaks to flight attendants because they operated under federal aviation laws which supersede state law. Further, the Airline Deregulation Act protected them from having to do so because providing for those breaks would require adding additional flight attendants to each flight, to account for those “off duty,” which would raise their costs and in turn raise airfares making the airline uncompetitive.

The panel of the Ninth Circuit court unanimously disagreed.

…meal and rest break requirements are designed to prevent “the evils associated with overwork,” mandating that employers treat employees humanely even when employees have been unable to bargain for that contractual right. 

The court reviewed carious federal aviation administration regulations, the American’s with Disabilities Act and other court cases for the basis of their ruling. They found that allowing flight attendants a 30 minute meal break for every five hours of work, or a ten minute rest breaks for every four hours on duty would not deter aviation safety as Alaska Airlines claimed. 

Airlines, for years, have claimed the Railway Labor Act or other federal laws and acts governed a flight attendants duty period and work rules no matter the state they’re currently in or are based in.

However, California now says.. not so fast.

The lawyers representing the flight attendants in a January 2021 hearing compared the workgroup to any other within the airline industry. Airlines hire and staff shifts adequately in California to allow for these breaks, thereby following local labor laws for their ramp, ticket and gate agents; therefore, they should do so for flight attendants. With the court now agreeing and citing that federal law doesn’t remove rights granted by state law, this will begin to raise questions with non-California based airlines who employ people to work and be based in California. 

Now, airlines with crews based in California without a flight attendant union contract, must now reevaluate their flight attendant staffing to allow for a rotation of meal and rest breaks for domestic flights and trip pairings if they have the crew on duty over 4 hours. Over 5 hours and a 30 minute meal time break must be provided. A union negotiated agreement would in fact supersede the law as its assumed the workgroup “agreed” to the rules stipulated, however, those with a contract and with California bases may now be able to negotiate for higher pay and/or breaks thanks to the ruling since it now affirms California based flight attendants should in fact have such breaks.

California Based Airlines Must Pay Flight Attendants Overtime

As a former Virgin America flight attendant, I worked many, many days in excess of 12 hours. The court points out that California law states:

Any work in excess of eight hours in one workday and any work in excess of 40 hours in any one workweek and the first eight hours worked on the seventh day of work in any one workweek shall be compensated at the rate of no less than one and one-half times the regular rate of pay for an employee. Any work in excess of 12 hours in one day shall be compensated at the rate of no less than twice the regular rate of pay for an employee.

It’s no secret that a lot of airline employees “commute” to work, they live in a city other than their home airport base and fly to work before flying for work. But if you’re working for a California based employer, the court says, you’re still due overtime. The opinion penned by Judge Smith states:

California Supreme Court held that the overtime provision applied to non-residents performing work in California for a California-based employer.

In the case being referenced, Sullivan, there wasn’t a clear answer as to whether or not the law would extend to California residents working outside of California for a California employer (think layovers, delays in another city, etc), but the panel agreed based on principles the law would in fact apply. 

Therefore, if you live in California and work for a California based airline or if you live out of state but work for a California based airline, you should be paid overtime per the law.

As if airline crew scheduling wasn’t already confusing, this could potentially toss a wrench in how airline flight schedules are built.

Imagine a non-union airline such as Delta with a Los Angeles base, having to give their California flight attendants rest and meal breaks, but technically not having to do so for those based in New York or Atlanta.

Do they make the decision to roll out additional staffing on all flights to account for the breaks or just to those select few who chose to and can hold a California base?

Bobby Laurie is a Columnist at Grit Daily. He is also a co-host on the nationally syndicated weekly travel and lifestyle television show, "The Jet Set," and serves as a travel expert for The Today Show, CNN/HLN, Inside Edition, among others. Laurie is one of two travel experts with actual, hands on industry experience. He has worked as a flight attendant since 2007 for three major U.S. airlines and served as an Analyst for In-Flight Policies and Procedures developing FAA-approved emergency procedures and communications.

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