Business & Tech

Airlines sue attorney general over Mass. sick time law

Airlines for America, a coalition of air carriers, has filed suit in federal court against Massachusetts.
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press/File 2017
Airlines for America, a coalition of air carriers, has filed suit in federal court against Massachusetts.

An airline industry group is suing Massachusetts over its paid sick time law, saying it is unconstitutional and should not apply to airlines.

In a complaint filed yesterday in federal court against Attorney General Maura Healey the group says that much of the work done by locally based flight crews takes place outside Massachusetts, in federally regulated airspace. They also contend that the law violates the Constitution by putting a burden on interstate commerce, according to the lawsuit filed by Airlines for America, a coalition that includes JetBlue Airways, United Airlines, American Airlines, and several other carriers.

The airlines argue that the state’s sick leave law hurts carriers’ business by leading to more employee absences, which cause flight delays and cancellations, angering passengers and damaging their brands. One airline has closed a flight attendant base after a paid sick time law led to an increase in the number of employees calling in sick, according to the complaint.

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The attorney general’s office, which enforces the sick time law, said it had not been served with the suit and declined to comment. According to the complaint, Healey started investigating an airline after a Boston-based flight attendant complained that the airline had violated the law. The matter is pending.

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Airlines already provide generous paid sick leave, according to the complaint, and closely monitor attendance to maintain safety and appropriate staffing levels and to keep flights running on time.

But the Massachusetts law prohibits employers from disciplining workers for sick-leave absences and requires at least a three-day absence before medical documentation is required, which the industry group said hurts airlines’ ability to investigate abuse of sick leave.

The Massachusetts law, which went into effect in 2015, requires that companies with 11 or more employees provide an hour of earned sick time for every 30 hours worked, culminating in up to 40 hours of paid sick time a year. But flight and ground crews often accrue sick leave in ways that can’t be easily converted into hours worked, according to the trade group.

Complying with multiple state and municipal sick leave laws requires the airlines to track hours and locations worked and calculate different benefits for different crews, according to the suit. A crew leaving from Logan Airport, stopping in New York, and continuing to Seattle, for instance, could be subject to three different sick leave laws, creating “mass confusion.”

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Airlines for America sued the state of Washington over its sick time law in February.

“Airlines cannot operate their nationwide systems properly if our employees groups are subject to the conflicting employment laws of every state in which they are based, live, or pass through,” Airlines for America said in a statement. “These state and local laws are designed for employees working in traditional office environments, working 40 hour weeks, five days per week. By contrast, [our] airlines operate 24 hours per day/365 days per year in 49 states.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.