How A Grieving Southwest Flight Attendant Expanded Illinois’ Paid Sick Leave Law

Corliss King and husband Terrance Hale celebrated at her 50th birthday party in June 2016.

Corliss King

Southwest flight attendant Corliss King lost her husband during treatment for kidney failure, ending a 24-year marriage. She was stricken of course. But by the time that Terrance Hale died in 2020, King was battling not only to establish his legacy but also to change an Illinois law that blocked airline workers from using accumulated sick leave to care for sick relatives. Only now is her four-year fight nearing a successful end. Last week, the policy was approved by the Illinois State Legislature. It awaits the governor’s signature.

King, 55, went to work for Southwest in 2003 as a “provisioner,” or caterer, at Midway Airport. She became a flight attendant in 2011. Hale’s kidneys began to fail in 2015, and he was diagnosed with end stage renal disease. This changed the couple’s lives. King became the sole breadwinner for a family of four, including two daughters in high school.

In one sense, being a flight attendant was a benefit because King had some control over her schedule. But her time off was generally classified as unpaid leave — even though Illinois workers outside the airline industry could use sick time to care for sick relatives.

King’s battle began as a lonely one. Eventually she found a backer in state Sen. Mike Hastings (D-Frankfort), the majority caucus whip. Over four years, Hastings shepherded legislation. Meanwhile, King increasingly engaged with the labor movement — first with her own union, the Transport Workers Union, and then with other airline unions as well. Today, she is an emerging power, a vice president of TWU Local 556, the Dallas-based local that represents 17,000 Southwest flight attendants.

Initially, “It was like the Bad News Bears against the New York Yankees,” Hastings said, referring to a movie about an overachieving kids’ baseball team. “Corliss had no experience in the legislative process, but she turned into this fearless legislative warrior who conquered the airline industry.” Said King, “Mike took this on because he felt sorry for me.”

When Hale was disabled, he gave up his security company, which provided executive protection. Southwest “was really good about accommodating me in terms of moving trips or rearranging my schedule,” King said. She had been earning about $55,000 annually. Longfully, she recalled that in her marriage, “I was the firecracker; he was always laid back.”

One day in 2017, King received a letter from Southwest saying that under Illinois law, workers could use sick time to pay for time off used to care for sick family members. “I thought, finally we get some relief,” she said. Two weeks later, she received a second letter saying the first one was wrong: at the airline, sick leave was only for sick employees. At first, “No one could explain what changed,” she said. “But I decided, ‘you can’t miss what you never had.’”

As Hale’s hospitalizations continued, King kept wondering about the mysterious legal change. At first, her only ally was Roy Soria, a kind-hearted TWU shop steward in her Chicago flight attendant base. In 2018, she and Soria drove the 200 miles to Springfield to meet with Hastings. He said they needed to work on new legislation. “It’s easy to take you out, but really hard to put you back in,” King said.

Said Hastings, “Corliss couldn’t take sick leave to be with her husband – Now he’s dead. I thought to myself, ‘What a terrible situation. Let’s go ahead and research what classes of employees can take sick leave for family members.’ There were just two classes who could not: railway workers and airline workers. The airlines had found a way to exempt themselves under federal labor law. But I said ‘That doesn’t apply here.’” I thought it was an abrasive approach, if somebody has accrued sick leave – why can’t they use it to take care of a family member?”

An Association of Flight Attendants spokeswoman noted, "The airline industry’s position on any sick leave or workers’ rights issue at the state level is to seek exemption.” Airlines For America, the industry trade group, did not comment specifically on the Illinois case, but a spokeswoman said, “A4A remains committed to ensuring that our airlines’ highly mobile workforces are treated fairly and consistently throughout their entire operations – regardless of which airport any given crew flies into and out of.”

Legislation moved slowly. Hastings wrote a bill that passed the Senate; then it had to pass the House. In March 2020, Covid-19 shut everything down. In April 2020, Hale died, which only strengthened King’s resolve. Meanwhile, King’s support grew to include four airline unions: Association of Professional Flight Attendants, Allied Pilots Association and the Air Line Pilots Association as well as AFA.

One event particularly galls King. In March 2020, Hastings called a meeting, which was attended by representatives from three unions and three airlines. King recalled that Southwest attorney Chris Mayberry, attending by phone, mentioned that King "was fully aware of the generous leave policy at Southwest because (she) had taken leave 20 times" during her career."  

According to King, "The room went silent. It was meant to embarrass me. I was mortified. Everyone was looking at me. I took leave because my husband had end stage renal disease, he almost died twice. The leave was all unpaid.”

A Southwest spokesman said Tuesday the “intent was to highlight that flight attendants have significant flexibility in their work schedules” including monthly bidding, the ability to trade trips, and time off arrangements including vacation pay. “At no time were any facts or remarks intended to embarrass an individual,” the spokesman said. But Hastings took King’s side; he called a press conference to decry the airlines’ approach.

This year, Hastings’ bill passed the state senate. Next step: the house of representatives. Hastings told King she needed signatures from 71 House members showing support, so union members from five unions buttonholed members. Then Senate leadership stepped in and got the bill into the state’s omnibus transportation bill. It passed this month.

“I’m sorry that I had to lose somebody for this to happen,” King said. “But at least it lets me make sense of something that didn’t make sense.”

via Forbes

November 4, 2021 at 08:01AM

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