Meals and Rest – Don’t Exempt, Negotiate

California state law requires employers based in the state to provide breaks during a work shift that are sufficient for accessing a meal and breaks for physiological needs. Flight Attendants who were based in California sued Virgin America and won first in federal district court and subsequently at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

Without exhausting potential solutions, the Bernstein v. Virgin America ruling from the Court of Appeals suggested some ways a carrier could comply with the statute, including:

  • rescheduling an interrupted break,
  • paying one (1) additional hour of pay per day,
  • augmenting crew compliments, or
  • requesting an exemption.

Instead of meaningfully seeking to address the provisions of the law, airline executives have argued the most onerous outcomes of applied law. For example, one argument the industry makes is that this law will require augmenting crew on long haul flights. They mount this argument despite the fact that the case is limited to California-based flight attendants flying in California. The court did not address the applicability of meal and rest provisions to long-haul flying, which primarily would take place outside of California and therefore may not even fall under this law.

Airline management has argued that they couldn’t possibly meet the standards of the law and crew should simply be exempt from rules that ensure proper rest and nutrition. This is consistent with their position on state law that supplements federal requirements – crew should simply be exempt because apparently we don’t get sick, hungry, have families, or need rest like other humans.

There is a long history of labor and management in California in various industries reaching agreements on meal and rest break provisions which match the realities of their industries. We can fashion an agreement that recognizes the nature of the industry but also ensures the goals of the California law are met. We can do this by coming to agreement on a legislative solution, and/or addressing the issue of obtaining proper nutrition and the ability/recognition that crew need time to eat and address physiological needs.

Over the past several months, airline industry representatives have been making dire predictions and direct threats of closing operations if they were forced to apply California meal and rest provisions to Flight Attendants. We have made it clear that their concerns are unfounded because we can simply work together to achieve a solution that ensures proper rest and nutrition. Airline management should have learned to respect our collective bargaining relationship and our ability to solve problems together, especially after our extraordinary accomplishments during the COVID crisis that saved the industry. In this case, they need to stop the threats and simply deal with the underlying issues long advocated by AFA to ensure adequate rest and access to meals for Flight Attendants.

Addressing the underlying issue is more productive than prolonged litigation. Without being prescriptive, the issues we have long advocated for include:

  • Give crew rest on long haul flights (transcons and transcon turns)
  • Provide meals (or compensation in lieu of meals) to ensure Flight Attendants have the ability to get food.
  • Provide any necessary pay provisions to satisfy the intent of the law

These are all possible negotiated solutions that recognize crew need to eat and have the time for basic human needs. AFA has been and remains ready to negotiate solutions, but we will not agree to undermine the rights of our members as it applies to benefits under state law.

Further, there’s potential for a global legislative solution here. Management should know very well, especially after we worked together to save our jobs and our airlines with the Payroll Support Program, that we can work together at an industry-wide level to craft solutions. AFA has been clear with the industry that we are ready to do that. All it takes is a commitment from the industry to address the issue and recognize that we understand better than anyone the unique factors of our industry. But it doesn’t mean that we have to give up our rights or pretend we don’t have basic physiological needs like every other human – especially when we are working in an environment that is extremely physical and harder on our bodies.

We can solve the concerns of the industry and protect crew at the same time. AFA remains ready to do that and we are calling on the industry to meet us at the table.