Under California labor laws, employees are entitled to a 30-minute meal break if they work for more than five hours, and a second break if they work for more than 10 hours. Transportation workers receive an additional 10-minute break for every four working hours. In 2015, California flight attendants brought a class action against Virgin America Airlines for violating these rules by not providing breaks to flight attendants on trips within California.
Virgin America responded by arguing that California labor laws were preempted in this situation by a federal law known as the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. A year after the lawsuit began, Alaska Airlines acquired Virgin America, but the case continued. Eventually, the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the flight attendants, finding that the California laws were not preempted. Alaska then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
To the surprise of many observers, the Supreme Court denied Alaska’s petition for certiorari last week. In other words, the Supreme Court will not hear the case, and the Ninth Circuit decision will be final. Alaska now must comply with California labor laws for meal and rest breaks on intrastate flights in California. U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar had advocated for this outcome in a brief to the Supreme Court.
Alaska now must determine how to reconcile California laws with the distinctive nature of flight attendant duties, which are governed by other federal rules. This precedent is relatively limited, since it focuses on flights within California, but future lawsuits could force courts to weigh other state labor laws against federal rules for flight attendants. Disputes could arise with regard to sick leave, in addition to meal and rest breaks. Supporters of the airlines have suggested that complying with more generous state laws could harm airline passengers, since airlines might need to increase their rates to cover the costs of compliance.
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