United Flight Attendants Score Win in Calif. Pay Stub Fight

A California federal judge just ruled in favor of a certified class of flight attendants, whose accusations are against United Airlines for violations of the Golden State’s wage statement law. While the judge is in favor of the class, he also held that a jury must decide on how much United will owe in civil penalties for the labor code violations.

In the 23-page order released last week, the flight attendants were granted partial summary judgement, but the U.S. District Judge Philip S. Gutierrez rejected United’s argument hourly, and therefore it is not legally obligated under the California labor code to list hourly rates in flight attendants’ pay stubs.

"The court acknowledges that defendant's pay scheme is complex, and that complying with [the labor code's] requirements may not be straightforward," the order says. "But that complication does not enable the court to disregard the plain language of [the statute]."

The judge granted the flight attendants summary judgment on their state law claims challenging the pay stubs but said a jury must decide the amount of civil penalties the flight attendants are entitled to for the violations.

The ruling is the latest development in litigation that Felicia Vidrio and Paul Bradley launched separately against United in 2015. The actions, which were later consolidated, alleged labor code violations for inaccurate pay stubs and sought penalties under the Private Attorney General Act, a California law that allows workers to challenge violations of California labor law on the state's behalf.

After certifying a class of flight attendants in 2016, Judge Gutierrez initially handed United a pretrial win in 2017, ruling that California law can't apply to the flight attendants' claims because they worked primarily outside of California and United isn't based or headquartered in the Golden State.

The California Supreme Court later rejected the judge's reasoning when it heard a case from another United flight attendant, Charles Ward, who had the same allegations as Vidrio and Bradley. The state high court ruled that because California is where the flight attendants are based, California law did apply.

In light of the state justices' decision, the Ninth Circuit revived the flight attendants' case in February 2021, and on remand, Judge Gutierrez modified the class definition to include all California-based United flight attendants who have worked for the company since Aug. 6, 2014, and who have either worked the majority of their time in California or did not work the majority of their time in any one state.

The parties filed dueling motions for summary judgment earlier this year, with the flight attendants arguing that the pay statements they receive from the airline violate California law because they do not include hourly rates or hours worked and aren't easily understandable, among other things.

But in United's motion, the airline argued that its so-called pay advice, which is issued with some paychecks, satisfies the labor law's pay stub requirements when considered together with a monthly pay register that flight attendants receive and the workers' collective bargaining agreement.

The airline also argued that it's not required to show hourly pay and hours worked, because oftentimes flight attendants aren't paid based on an hourly rate and their pay is instead calculated using an "enormously complex pay scheme" that incorporates various factors like bidding and credits for time worked. United noted that the state high court has upheld its pay structure and including an hourly pay rate on a pay stub would be inaccurate, or at best, confusing.

In his ruling Friday, the judge rejected United's arguments that it can meet its legal requirements by providing pay information in multiple documents. The judge noted that the state high court's Ward ruling emphasized that the goal of the pay stub statute is to help employees determine if they have been properly compensated.

"Considering the underlying purpose of [the statute] as expressed by the California Supreme Court, the court concludes that defendant cannot combine its pay advice and pay register … into one 'wage statement' for purposes of satisfying the requirements of [the labor code]," the order says.

The judge concluded that United's pay advice constitutes a wage statement, since it includes more wage information — like the employee's full name and gross wages earned — than the pay register. But Judge Gutierrez also noted the pay advice still is missing key data, including the employer's name, deductions, net wages earned and hourly rates.

Judge Gutierrez added that another district court in California recently rejected similar arguments raised by United in Booher v. JetBlue Airways, and United's defense argument "falls flat in the face of the reality that its wage statements do not come close to reflecting the complexity of its pay scheme."

However, the court ruled in United's favor on the flight attendants' claim that the airline violated wage laws by using a post office box on its wage statements rather than a physical address. A post office box is sufficient to establish an address under the labor code, he ruled.

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