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Ninth Circuit Upholds Flight Attendants’ Claims for Overtime, Rest and Meal Breaks

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Court rejects minimum wage claims

San Francisco, CAOn February 23, the Ninth Circuit largely upheld a District Court grant of summary judgment to flight attendants in their class action lawsuit against Virgin America. Bernstein v. Virgin America Inc. alleged that the airline had failed to pay minimum wage and overtime and permit meal and rest breaks, as required by California labor law. The Ninth Circuit did, however, reduce certain penalties assessed against Virgin America.

The decision delves deeply into issues of when and to what extent either the U.S. Constitution or federal law preempts state law. It is a dense and complicated opinion. For California airline workers, however, there are three big takeaways: 
  • California labor law applies to California-based flight attendants;
  • Virgin America’s “block scheduling” wage and hour scheme does not, by itself, violate California law; and
  • the Federal Aviation Act (FAA) preempts state wage and hour requirements only to the extent that those state laws affect matters of safety.

Does California labor law apply?

            
Julia Bernstein and other plaintiffs were California-based Virgin America flight attendants. During the period in question, approximately 25 percent of Virgin America’s flights were between California airports. Approximately 75 percent either took off or landed at a non-California airport, but the vast majority of those flights retained some connection to California. The flight attendants spent approximately a third of their time working within California’s borders. They apparently worked in no other state more than they worked in California.

In their Complaint, the flight attendants alleged that Virgin America failed to pay minimum wage, overtime and for every hour worked. In addition, the flight attendants claimed that Virgin failed to provide required meal and rest breaks.

Virgin took the position that it was not subject to California labor law because of the burden that state laws placed on interstate commerce. This is a Constitutional argument involving the Commerce Clause.

The District Court held that the California Labor Code applied to all work performed in California. The Ninth Circuit agreed, reasoning that, although the application of California law affected interstate commerce, it did not impose a substantial burden on it. At the outset, and as a threshold issue, this was a big win for the flight attendants because of the extensive protection California labor law affords workers.

Did Virgin’s “block scheduling” wage and hour scheme violate California labor law?    


On this question, the Ninth Circuit relied on Oman v. Delta Airlines, Inc. to disagree with the lower court. It found nothing inherently illegal in Virgin’s scheduling and payment scheme. Although the airline’s system did not promise any particular compensation for any particular hour of work, it offered a guaranteed level of compensation for each duty period and each rotation.

Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit reversed the District Court’s award of summary judgment to the flight attendants on the claim that the airline failed to pay for every hour worked and failed to pay the legally-required minimum hourly wage. It upheld the workers’ claim for unpaid overtime, however, concluding that the public policy goals of California labor protections would be thwarted by permitting California residents to work outside of California for a California employer without the protection of California overtime law.

Does the Federal Aviation Act preempt California labor law?

   
Virgin America also made the argument that the FAA preempted California labor law with respect to the flight attendants’ rest and meal break claims. At its most basic, the general rule is that where federal and state law are in conflict and both apply to the same situation, federal law governs the situation.

The regulations that implement the FAA prohibit duty periods of more than 14 hours and require a 9-hour rest period after release from a duty period. Section 512 of the California Labor Code, on the other hand, requires a meal period of at least 30 minutes after 5 hours of work and a second meal break after 10 hours. Wage Order No. 9 requires an “authorized rest period time” that is based on the total hours worked daily at the rate of ten minutes per four hours or major fraction thereof.

The Ninth Circuit conceded, as other courts have, that the FAA preempts state regulation with respect to airline safety. It concluded, however, that California’s meal and rest break laws were only tenuously related to safety concerns, and so, should not be preempted by federal law. Finally, the Ninth Circuit concluded that Virgin America’s conduct was not so egregious that it merited enhanced penalties under California’s Private Attorneys General Act.

California labor law impact


The Ninth Circuit’s decision means a great deal for California-based flight attendants, regardless of airline. Beyond that subset of the working population, however, the most noticeable takeaway is the lengths to which employer advocates will go to argue that their particular industry should be exempt from worker-friendly California labor laws. Constitutional arguments about preemption are not the first place to which employers turn. It suggests that the issue is of urgent interest.

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