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Chicago Flight Attendant Wins Paid Sick Leave Battle for Aviation Workers

Date: December 28, 2021

By , Chicago Tribune

As a mother of two teenage daughters who spent her days juggling family responsibilities with her job as a flight attendant, Chicago resident Corliss King had no time in her busy schedule for political activism.

But after an arcane federal labor law allowed her employer, Southwest Airlines, to deny King’s request for paid sick leave to care for her critically ill husband, she was propelled to action to ensure the more than 30,000 aviation workers in Illinois like herself would have access to employer-provided sick leave to care for ill or injured loved ones.

“It didn’t make sense, and I was frustrated that no one could give me an answer as to why airline employees were excluded from the state law,” said King, who this month celebrated a bittersweet victory when the Illinois Sick Leave Act for Aviation Workers was signed into law by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

While King’s husband, Terrance Hale, died in April 2020 after a battle with renal disease, she said the passage of the new law this month honors her late husband’s legacy.

“It is an incredible gift to be able to give back, despite my grief, knowing Terrance’s life provided something good for so many families,” King said.

King’s crusade began in 2017, when she received a letter from Southwest alerting her that a new law was passed in Illinois allowing paid sick time to be taken to care for family members.

“I remember feeling excited that I was finally going to have some type of financial relief,” recalled King, who said after her husband became critically ill, she was the family of four’s sole breadwinner.

“But then within 12 days, I got another notice telling me that airline workers were excluded from the Illinois law, and at that point, it just didn’t make sense to me,” King said.

“I’m a rule follower, but no one could explain why we were excluded, so it felt like someone had stolen something from me … I was working side by side on flights with co-workers from other states who had that right, and I thought to myself, ‘that’s just not fair,’” she said.

King’s growing frustration with the law unfolded alongside her husband’s worsening condition, which required her to accompany the former owner of a security company and martial arts instructor to his frequent dialysis treatments and other medical appointments.

“Southwest was really good about letting me take the days off, but I was not getting paid, and by that point, I was the primary wage earner responsible for paying our family’s bills, and also caring for a sick spouse,” King said.

It would take four years and frequent trips to Springfield to plead with lawmakers before King’s goal of extending the state’s paid sick leave to airline employees neared the finish line, said Illinois state Sen. Michael Hastings, a suburban Chicago Democrat who wrote the original bill.

The Frankfort lawmaker, who learned of King’s quest from a mutual friend, said he was immediately drawn to the cause.

“To me, it’s a no-brainer. … Excluding aviation workers from paid sick leave was just plain stupid,” said Hastings, who said three weeks after meeting King, she phoned his office and told him her husband had died.

“When we first started, I told Corliss, ‘you guys have no idea what you’re up against … It’s the equivalent of the Bad News Bears playing the New York Yankees,’” Hastings said.

Despite the arrival of what Hastings described as a contingent of “highly paid lobbyists hired by the airline industry” flying to Springfield from Washington aiming to block the move, King remained undeterred.

Opponents invoked the national Railway Labor Act to argue against including aviation employees in the state’s paid sick leave law. The federal law, which was enacted in 1926 and later amended to include airlines, was intended to “avoid any interruption of interstate commerce by providing for the prompt disposition of disputes between carriers and their employees and protects the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively,” according to the Department of Transportation website.

But Hastings said the original intent of the law was to prevent mass disruptions to the U.S. economy, not to quash the “health and welfare rights of employees in a particular state,” Hastings said.

Hastings advised King and her fellow members of Transport Workers Union Local 556 to make their presence known in Springfield by arriving in their uniforms and speaking directly to lawmakers as they arrived at the state capitol.

The legislation passed the Illinois Senate in the spring but stalled in the House. Hastings and fellow Sen. Ram Villivalam, a Chicago Democrat, moved to have the airline workers legislation bundled into the transportation omnibus bill, which passed in late October. Pritzker signed the bill into law Dec. 10.

“This needed legislation brought to our attention by Corliss is for the greater good of the aviation workers in Illinois, but it sets a precedent, too,” Hastings said.

The passage of the Illinois Sick Leave Act for Aviation Workers is the result of a “multi-year fight” led by union members, including King, a 2nd vice president for the TWU, and “extends the rights included in the Illinois Sick Leave Act of 2017 to cover workers in the airline industry, including flight attendants, pilots, ramp workers, airline mechanics, and other airline workers who were previously excluded from the 2017 bill,” union officials said in a statement.

“The Illinois Sick Leave Act for Aviation Workers ensures that more than 30,000 aviation workers in Illinois will have the right to use employer-provided sick leave to care for an ill or injured child, spouse, sibling, parent, or grandparent — correcting the error of the 2017 bill and restoring fairness and equity to airline workers and their families,” TWU officials said.

Southwest Airlines spokesman Dan Landson said in a statement that the carrier “already provides its employees, including Flight Attendants, with extremely generous sick, family, and medical leave — in many cases far exceeding what is required under applicable laws.” He added that the new law requires “employers who provide sick leave allow their employees to use one-half of that sick leave to care for family members, under the same terms that normally apply to the use of sick leave under company policy.”

“The Act simply expands the ability of Southwest’s Illinois-based employees to use sick leave for certain family members. Given that the Act specifically allows employers to apply normal sick leave policies, Southwest does not anticipate a significant impact to its operations,” he added.

Illinois is the latest of a growing number of states that have passed legislation upholding paid sick leave for aviation employees, said Hastings, who says the passage of the new legislation means employees in all industries, including the railway, are now covered by the state’s sick leave legislation.

A Pritzker spokesperson said in a statement the legislation is “critical” and allows “aviation workers to use the sick leave they have earned to care for their loved ones — a benefit workers across the state need now more than ever.”

For King, who said she is looking forward to celebrating Kwanzaa with her daughters, Nayla Hale, 22, and Adarah Hale, 20, the governor’s signing of the legislation she advocated for years is cause for celebration and reflection.

“When I first arrived in Springfield, I felt like everyone in the room was playing chess, and here I am, with a checkerboard under my arm,” King said.

“But when my husband passed away in April of 2020, I thought to myself, ‘they don’t know what they’re up against,’” she said, adding: “I remember Terrance calling me and saying, ‘I’m so proud of you!’ And I thought about that every single time I went to Springfield, and it made me more determined than ever.”

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