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United Keeps Fighting Workers' Paid Military Leave Suit

Apr 22, 2019 / News Item / Law360 — Alyssa Aquino

Private sector employers are not obligated to provide paid military leave, United Airlines and its parent company United Continental Holdings argued in their second move to toss proposed class claims over its military leave policy.

The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Act mandates that public employers pay for workers' short-term military leave, but the law is deliberately quiet on the issue of private employers, the airline argued. United is looking again to toss a pilot's amended complaint claiming he was unfairly refused compensation for his short-term military leaves.

The dismissal move, filed Friday, comes three weeks after Eric White, a United Airlines pilot, refiled claims the airline and UCH maintained a policy that stiffed workers out of pay for short-term military leave and failed to credit that time in a UCH profit-sharing plan. White wants a proposed class of at least several thousand workers to be paid for short-term military leave and receive credit for that time since 2006.

Just because United Airlines paid regular wages and salaries to employees who took other types of leave, such as jury duty or sick leave, does not mean it must similarly compensate workers for short military absences, the airline argued.

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An employee's decision to invest a profit-sharing plan award into a retirement plan "does not transform the [profit-sharing plan] into an employee pension benefit plan," United said.

Peter Romer-Friedman, who represents a proposed class of United Airlines pilots, told Law360 Monday he sees the situation differently.

His clients' suit hinges on the question of equity between reserve members and others when they go on leave, Romer-Friedman said.

"We think it's important to recognize the service of millions of soldiers who serve their country," he said.

He said the airline's compensation for jury or sick leave opens up the conversation for compensating military leave.

Romer-Friedman also said the Supreme Court has been open to broadly interpreting USERRA, citing rulings in Fishgold v. Sullivan Drydock & Repair Group and King v. St. Vincent's Hospital.

United Airlines' litigation comes amid a slew of USERRA suits accusing other airlines of denying workers paid military leave. Southwest Airlines recently struck a $19 million settlement resolving claims it denied benefits for military leave.

United Airlines also faces a second proposed class action in Illinois accusing the company of unfairly denying over 4,000 pilots sick leave and vacation time while on military leave.

Counsel for United Airlines and UCH could not immediately be reached Monday.

The workers are represented by Peter Romer-Friedman and Paul W. Mollica of Outten & Golden LLP, R. Joseph Barton of Block & Leviton LLP, Thomas G. Jarrard of the Law Office of Thomas G. Jarrard LLC, and Matthew Z. Crotty of Crotty & Son Law Firm, PLLC.

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