Aerlex Law Group

Are California Based Flight Attendants Entitled to Meal and Rest Breaks?

In past articles, we have advised that it is imperative that employers properly assess overtime and other required employee rights and posed the question whether California’s stricter “employee-friendly” laws supersede federal law on overtime, mandatory breaks and other employment benefits as applied to commercial air carriers conducting flight operations in interstate commerce.  Based on a new ruling from a Ninth Circuit judge in San Francisco, it appears that employers must adhere to California’s stricter rules.

In Wilson v. SkyWest Airlines, Inc., two California-based flight attendants filed suit against their former employer claiming various violations of California law for SkyWest’s alleged failure to provide meal breaks, rest breaks and proper wage statements.

Following the recent Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Bernstein v. Virgin America, Inc., Judge Vince Chhabria decided that Sky West employees’ claims for mandatory breaks are not preempted by the Airline Deregulation Act or the Federal Aviation Act because SkyWest is not unduly burdened by an obligation to comply with California rules with respect to employees who reside in California.  Judge Chhabria determined that applying California’s meal break, rest break and wage statement laws to SkyWest’s California-based flight attendants does not violate the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause because enforcing these California laws will have only “incidental effects” on interstate commerce.  The Ninth Circuit explained why requiring an airline—even one headquartered outside of California such as SkyWest—to issue California-compliant wage statements to California-based flight attendants does not run afoul of the Commerce Clause, with the same general principles applying to California’s meal and rest break laws to the airline’s California-based flight attendants.

Judge Chhabria opined that any burden imposed on the airline was greatly alleviated by the options available to SkyWest to comply with the meal and rest break requirements.  With respect to rest breaks, California laws expressly permit employers to seek exemptions from the rest break requirements if compliance “would not materially affect the welfare or comfort of employees and would work an undue hardship on the employer.”  Chhabria stated that flights attendants seem like the prime example of employees who would qualify for such an exemption, given that (1) they have opportunities to sit and rest while onboard, and (2) providing duty-free rest breaks in the middle of a flight would likely create an undue hardship because, as required by federal regulations and as needed to ensure passenger safety, flight attendants must remain alert and vigilant while a plane is in the air.  Judge Chhabria further determined that the nature of flight attendants’ duties seems precisely the kind of work that prevents attendants from being relieved of all duties while taking meal breaks, so it would be appropriate for the airline and the flight attendants to agree to on-duty meals breaks by written agreement as required under California law.

Compensation for On-Call Time?

The Court also had before it the issue of whether the flight attendants had to be compensated for “on-call” time during reserved periods as “hours worked.”  The court deferred a decision on this issue but explained that the focus is on “the extent of the employer’s control,” including whether an employer “directs, commands or restrains an employee from leaving the workplace” or “prevents the employee from using the time effectively for his or her own purposes.”

The court would look at various factors in making such a determination, including (1) whether there is an on-premises living requirement; (2) whether there are geographical restrictions on employee movements; (3) whether the frequency of calls is unduly restrictive; (4) whether a fixed time limit for response is unduly restrictive; (4) whether the on-call employee can trade on-call responsibilities; (6) whether the use of a pager can ease restrictions; (7) whether the employee actually engages in personal activities during the on-call time; (8) whether the on-call time is spent primarily for the benefit of the employer and its business; and (9) what the parties agree to.  Each case will be determined on the specific facts.

Based on these recent cases, we believe it is important for employers to carefully consider how California’s stricter labor laws affect their operations and what employers should do to remain compliant.  For some companies it may be a wise idea to seek the exemption from strict compliance as outlined by Judge Chhabria.  Aerlex’s employment team can assist employers with these exemptions and with guiding companies through California’s numerous employment regulations, especially as they apply to the aviation industry.

The information contained in this article are by no means exhaustive, nor should they be relied upon as a legal opinion or advice for your particular circumstances.  If you would like to further information, please contact Douglas Stuart at Aerlex.