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Press Release: Workers’ Rights Organizations File Suit Against Jared Polis for Backroom Deal Exempting Southwest Airlines from Following Paid Sick Leave Laws

On Monday, TWU Local 556, a union of Colorado-based flight attendants, represented by Towards Justice and Milstein Turner PLLC, filed suit against Governor Jared Polis and the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment in state court, arguing that the administration granted an illegal backroom exemption from paid sick leave laws to Southwest Airlines through a settlement with the company. 

The Polis Administration’s settlement with the airline was a stark reversal of the State’s 2022 citation against Southwest, which imposed more than $1.3 million in fines for persistent violations of Colorado’s paid sick leave law, the Healthy Families and Workplaces Act. That fine was upheld by an administrative law judge.

But a year later, the State and Southwest announced that they had reached a settlement, where the State agreed that Southwest Airlines does not have to comply with the law’s clear requirements on the same basis as other employers across Colorado. The State also agreed not to investigate claims brought by Southwest Airlines Colorado-based union employees that Southwest has violated their sick leave rights.

The State’s complete reversal in this matter is especially shocking after the State itself found that Southwest had refused to provide paid sick leave, as required under State law, for preventative medical care or to care for a sick child, and that they had penalized employees for using paid sick time.

As a result of this settlement, Southwest Airlines will not be held to the same minimum requirements on paid sick time that apply to other employers across the State of Colorado—with negative implications for public health and the well-being of airline employees – from baggage handlers to flight attendants – who will be forced in many cases to choose between their personal or family health and their jobs.

The flight attendants’ lawsuit argues, among other things, that the settlement is “arbitrary and capricious” and that the State violated their due process rights by negotiating away their statutory right to paid sick leave through a hidden, backroom settlement without giving them any due process.

“We are so disappointed that after months of looking us in the face and telling us that they were standing up for us, our elected officials have failed us,” said Jamie Simpson, Southwest Flight Attendant and Executive Board Member of Local 556. “Instead of standing up for workers, they have given in to a corporation that had record operating revenues over $20 billion last year but refuses to give us basic paid leave protections.”

“We’re deeply concerned by the settlement in this case. Colorado’s hard-fought legislative protections for workers, consumers, tenants, the environment, and the general public are worthless if powerful corporations can extract from the executive branch sweeping backroom settlements that exempt those corporations from Colorado law,” said David Seligman, Executive Director of Towards Justice.

When the Colorado Legislature passed the Healthy Families and Workplaces Act in 2020, the State Legislature recognized the public health benefits of a guaranteed right to paid sick leave and provided universal coverage for employees across the State.

“For years, airlines have been seeking to exempt themselves from state and local paid sick time laws across the country,” said Jared Make, the Denver-based Vice President of A Better Balance. “Even when paid sick leave laws are written in a way that clearly protects airline workers, as in Colorado, the airlines too often refuse to follow the paid sick leave laws and, when held accountable, seek other routes to avoid compliance.”

“With its restrictions on family care and penalties for workers who use sick time, it is clear that Southwest Airlines’ sick leave policy is not equivalent to the baseline protections of Colorado’s paid sick leave law,” Make added. “The consequences of this unfortunate settlement will be significant for airline employees – from baggage handlers to flight attendants – who will be forced in many cases to choose between their jobs and their health or the health of their loved ones.”

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