United Airlines Workers Say Short Military Leave Deserves Pay

Law360—Danielle Nichole Smith

United Airlines Inc. and United Continental Holdings Inc. were hit with a proposed class action in Illinois federal court Monday alleging that they flouted a federal anti-discrimination law by not paying regular wages to workers who took short-term military leave or crediting that time toward a profit-sharing program.

Because the companies paid regular wages and salaries to employees who took similar types of leave, such as jury duty or sick leave, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act requires them to do the same for those who take short-term military leave, Eric White, the lead plaintiff, said in his complaint. And the same applies to crediting the workers’ earnings for short-term military leave for the purposes of calculating their profit-sharing awards under the United Continental Holdings Inc. Profit Sharing Plan, White alleged.

Peter Romer-Friedman, an attorney for White, said the case is fundamentally about crediting employees’ military service for all purposes.

“What USERRA is all about is ensuring that our service members can balance their civilian and military careers, and we hope that the relief that we’re seeking in this case will be won and will make it easier for our courageous reservists to continue to serve their country and their civilian employers, and in this case, the public at large through the work that they do for United Airlines," Romer-Friedman said.

White argued that leave for jury duty or illness is comparable to short-term military leave since all were involuntary and usually lasted several days and not generally more than a couple of weeks. Additionally, both jury duty and short-term military leave are services performed for the government and the benefit of society, White contended.

White, who has been a pilot at United since 2005, said that he took dozens of periods of short-term military leave that were less than 30 days long for which he wasn’t paid regular wages or credited in relation to the profit-sharing plan. White earned profit-sharing awards in seven of the years he was at the company, but the awards would have been larger had his short-term military leave been credited, he said.

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The suit asks the court to declare that the conduct alleged in the complaint violated USERRA and to order United to pay employees their regular compensation and credit them for their short-term military leave going forward. The suit also asks that United be ordered to pay White and the proposed class members, estimated to be at least several thousand workers, wages and give them credit for their short-term military leave since 2006.

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 and Matthew Z. Crotty of Crotty & Son Law Firm PLLC.

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The case is White v. United Airlines Inc. et al., case number 1:19-cv-00114, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.