American Airlines Sues to Make Travelers Sicker

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

American Airlines sued New York City over its paid sick leave laws—one more example of American businesses’ frequent reflexive reaction against any pro-worker laws.

Earlier this month, just in time for people’s summer vacations, American Airlines took a legal action that has the potential to expose travelers to more germs. The airline sued New York City over its paid sick leave laws.

This is perhaps not the best public-relations move by an industry widely seen as a conveyor of illness. Travelers board planes armed with Clorox wipes; pharmacy shelves carry whole lines of preflight immunity-boosting elixirs. You would think the airlines would want sick employees to stay home, so they wouldn’t spread germs in airports filled with travelers and airplanes filled with recirculated air.

Although it has largely flown under the radar, American’s lawsuit is actually one of several brought in the past few years by airlines fighting paid sick leave laws. The industry association Airlines for America sued Massachusetts and Washington state last year, and Delta Airlines sued New York City the year before; all of those lawsuits are currently ongoing. A pattern seems to be emerging.

What is so ruffling the airlines’ feathers?

One objection is the complexity of complying with what the airlines call a patchwork of varying state and local laws. American’s lawsuit posits the problem of a flight crew traveling from New York to Seattle with a stopover in Boston; the crew would be subject to three different paid sick leave laws in one day. The 2018 case against Washington state cites a similar specter, although with a different route (Seattle, Portland, San Diego).

But airlines are not mom-and-pops. They’re massive international businesses with such complex operations that they sometimes literally charge a different price for every seat on every plane. It seems well within their capacity to track five or six sick days per employee. Besides which, a simple solution to this patchwork problem exists: Airlines could follow the most protective of the laws that could arguably apply.

In fact, the timing of this month’s case belies American’s position that the patchwork is the problem. It was actually a response to an action by New York City against American that involved a ground crew working solely at airports in Queens, subject to only one paid sick leave law: New York City’s. Workers reached out to the city for help because American started a policy of punishing them for taking sick days, assigning disciplinary points for every day so used. American’s response to the city’s action? A lawsuit disingenuously claiming that having to comply with multiple laws is the problem.

The airlines also complain in the lawsuits that the paid sick leave law allows employers to require a doctor’s note only when an absence lasts three workdays in a row. This makes sense, given the cost of health care and difficulty of getting a doctor’s appointment. But the airlines want to be able to require a doctor’s note for each and every sick day, presumably to deter fraud. This unrealistic insistence seems odd: Airlines trust their employees to prepare and repair and fly airplanes with hundreds of human lives at stake, but doubt their own team’s integrity and reliability when it comes to using paid sick days?

The lawsuits offer a dire prediction of unexpected absences causing widespread delays. But the companies’ own court filings offer a straightforward solution to this problem: They can “increase the reserve pool … to guard against potential service interruptions.” This measure would cost airlines money, but it wouldn’t necessarily lead to increased fares, since a passenger’s ticket price is determined by a multitude of factors, not least demand, as people in a hurricane zone quickly learn when they’re trying to get out of Dodge.

These lawsuits are one more example of American businesses’ frequent reflexive reaction against any pro-worker laws. Airlines themselves previously challenged, for example, a Miami living-wage ordinance and a San Francisco anti-discrimination ordinance requiring provision of employment benefits for domestic partners. The airlines’ problem isn’t the patchwork; if that were the case, they would be vigorously lobbying for a decent national paid sick leave policy. Their real problem is being told they have to do better by their workers.

The airlines’ response also shows how retrograde our country is in relation to paid leave, lagging behind all other developed nations. There’s a ray of hope in the dozens of states and municipalities that have passed paid sick leave laws (which employers have overwhelmingly found to be manageable). As highly visible national companies, airlines should be embarrassed to be fighting these modest but critical protections.

Finally, back to the Clorox: In certain industries, like restaurants and airlines, a sick employee can spread illness to scores of people. From a public-health perspective, it’s an especially bad idea to have sick people going in to work at airports and on planes.

For now, travelers can call on Congress to pass national paid leave laws. For more immediate results, we can push for paid sick leave statutes at the state and local levels.

And of course, there’s also one final step: Before taking off, pack the Purell.

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