Flight attendants' minimum wage class action claims grounded vs SkyWest Airlines

By Scott Holland and Jonathan Bilyk | Dec 1, 2017

By Vicsandtheworld - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18254632

A federal judge has permanently grounded a class action lawsuit brought against SkyWest Airlines by a group of flight attendants, who the judge said still haven't made their case the airline paid them so little it violated minimum wage laws.

In an opinion issued Nov. 30 in federal court in Chicago, Judge John J. Tharp Jr. agreed to again dismiss two complaints facing SkyWest Inc. He had previously dismissed the actions in May 2016, but allowed the plaintiffs to amend and reintroduce their complaints.

Each complaint had alleged, while the airline purported to pay flight attendants at least $17 an hour or more based on seniority, the flight attendants actually effectively earned less than $7.25 per hour, because the airline only paid them for time spent in the airplane with the cabin door closed. This system excluded pay for time spent on other tasks important or essential to their jobs, such as clearing airport security or reading and responding to emails containing information essential to their upcoming flights, the flight attendants argued.

The lead plaintiff in one action is Andrea Hirst, who filed her complaint in March 2015; she had worked for SkyWest from 2010-2015. The other, filed in November 2015 initially in San Francisco federal court, came from fellow lead plaintiff Cheryl Tapp, who also worked for SkyWest from 2010-2015, according to her complaint.

Judge Tharp, however, said neither woman’s amended complaint includes facts showing any attendant was ever paid less than the minimum over the course of a workweek. Further, he explained state and local laws girding the complaint “would pose a substantial (impossible, really) compliance burden on SkyWest” and would “unduly interfere with Congress’ regulation of interstate commerce.”

The attendants’ complaints — substantially the same — draw attention to SkyWest’s scheduling system and employee work duties both for flights and training, as well as the company’s method for maintaining overall records. The plaintiffs explained instances in which their block time wages did not align with their actual time on duty based on flight delays, training and arriving early to account for airline security procedures.

However, Tharp explained, not only do the attendants fail to allege they ever earned less than $7.25 in a given week, “the plaintiffs concede” they can’t actually do so. He quoted Hirst’s complaint, which said, “flight attendants cannot reasonably calculate their actual hourly rate of pay for any given workweek.”

Noting similar language in Tapp’s complaint, Tharp wrote: “A plaintiff’s concession that she cannot determine her hourly wage over the course of any workweek is a concession that she cannot state a (Fair Labor Standards Act) minimum wage claim.”

Further, Tharp noted the amended complaints, in which the attendants’ reported total pay and duty hours for the periods in question, reveals all the named plaintiffs actually earned more than the federal minimum — in some cases more than double. He noted they attempted to make up the deficit by citing work done before reporting for duty or after punching out, but those allegations fell “short of plausibly establishing that the performance of these duties has ever caused any of the plaintiffs to work so many hours that their average hourly rate for the week dipped below the federal minimum wage.” Specifically, they said the tasks consumed from a few minutes to several hours per working day.

For the attendants whose data showed the wages closest to the minimum, Tharp said they would have needed to work about five extra hours over a 15-day period to drive their earnings below limit, and while that’s a plausible figure, “whether they worked that many uncompensated hours during these particular periods is anybody’s guess; the complaint contains no allegations whatsoever about the number of off-duty hours.”

Tharp also grounded the flight attendants’ contention they needed greater access to SkyWest’s payroll and personnel records to produce the evidence they needed to establish their case. The judge noted he had already granted limited pretrial discovery, which the plaintiffs could have used to buttress their case, rather than demanding further discovery to find evidence they might use to back their as-yet unestablished claims. 

And the judge said he doubted SkyWest would even keep records showing how much time the flight attendants spent on off-the-clock tasks, or how early they arrived at airports “to avoid the unpredictability of security lines.”

Because the amended complaints failed to address the flaws that brought about the first dismissal, Tharp dismissed the entirety of both complaints with prejudice.

The plaintiffs were represented by Greg Coleman Law P.C., of Knoxville, Tenn.; the Gibbs Law Group LLP, of Oakland, Calif.; Girard Gibbs LLP, of San Francisco; and Wexler Wallace LLP, of Chicago.

SkyWest was defended in the action by attorneys with the firms of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C., of Charlotte, N.C., St. Louis and Chicago.

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Organizations in this Story

Girard Gibbs LLP Greg Coleman Law, PC Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, PC SkyWest Airlines U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois Wexler Wallace LLP

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