United Rebuffs Workers' Bid For Paid Military Leave
United Airlines Inc. and United Continental Holdings Inc. told an Illinois federal judge Monday they have no obligation under a federal anti-discrimination law to provide employees with paid military leave.
In a bid to dismiss a case from workers seeking compensation for their time on military leave, the airline said the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Act clearly states that private sector employers aren’t required to pay wages to service members for that time.
Under the law, only federal employers must pay workers for military leave, and the proposed class of United employees are asking the court to “add obligations beyond those Congress intended,” the airline argued.
* * *
The proposed class action in Illinois federal court alleges both United Airlines and United Continental Holdings violated USERRA by not paying regular wages to workers who took short-term military leave or crediting that time toward a profit-sharing program.
Because the companies paid regular wages and salaries to employees who took similar types of leave, such as jury duty or sick leave, USERRA requires them to do the same for those who take short-term military leave, Eric White, the lead plaintiff, said in the complaint.
“We’re asking for military leave to be treated as favorably as other types of leave,” Peter Romer-Friedman, an attorney representing the proposed class members, told Law360 on Tuesday. “We think this is well-supported by USERRA.”
Employees should also be credited for their earnings during short-term military leave in calculating their profit-sharing awards under the United Continental Holdings Inc. Profit Sharing Plan, the workers argued.
* * *
White has been a United pilot since 2005 and said he has taken military leave for periods of less than 30 days dozens of times without pay or credit to the profit-sharing plan. White earned profit-sharing awards in seven of the years he was at the company, but the awards would have been larger had his short-term military leave been credited, he said.
“USERRA applies to all employee pension benefit plans, not just ERISA plans. We think Congress is pretty broad in how it identifies the entities that have obligations under USERRA’s provisions,” Romer-Friedman said. “We don’t want service members to lose out in their retirement security because they served their country.”
The suit asks the court to declare that the conduct alleged in the complaint violates USERRA and to order United to pay employees their regular compensation and credit them for their short-term military leave going forward. The suit also asks that United be ordered to pay wages to White and the proposed class members, estimated to be at least several thousand workers, and give them credit for their short-term military leave since 2006.
United Airlines is facing a second lawsuit in Illinois brought by more than 4,000 pilots who allege they were denied sick and vacation time, as well as full pension payments, while on military leave.
Other airlines have been hit with similar USERRA lawsuits. In September, Southwest Airlines Co. agreed to make nearly $6 million in retirement payments and provide sick leave potentially worth over $13 million to end a California federal suit alleging it denied benefits for brief stints of military service to a proposed class of as many as 2,000 pilots.
In February 2017, American Airlines reached a cash and stock deal worth nearly $6.5 million to resolve a class action brought by American Airlines pilots who said the airline’s pension plan didn’t contribute enough to their retirement plans while they were serving in the military.
* * *
The workers are represented by R. Joseph Barton of Block & Leviton LLP, Peter Romer-Friedman and Paul W. Mollica of Outten & Golden LLP, Thomas G. Jarrard of the Law Office of Thomas G. Jarrard and Matthew Z. Crotty of Crotty & Son Law Firm PLLC.
* * *
The case is White v. United Airlines Inc. et al., case number 1:19-cv-00114, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.