Monday, October 15, 2007

Mandatory maternity leave does not qualify flight attendant for unemployment

Unemployment cases do not usually grab my attention. Continental Airlines v. Peters, however, did. April Peters was a flight attendant for Continental Airlines, a union employer. Continental's collective bargaining agreement has a provision under which a pregnant flight attendant is placed on mandatory maternity leave at the end of her 27th week of pregnancy. Apparently, that provision is consistent with FAA regulations forbidding flight attendants from flying past their 27th week of pregnancy. During that maternity leave, the flight attendant accrues all seniority, is eligible to use accumulated sick leave. The contract also permits the flight attendant to elect a one-time 12-month maternity leave following the birth. Peters became pregnant, and Continental, consistent with the collective bargaining agreement, placed her on maternity leave at the end of her 27th week of pregnancy. Once on the mandatory leave, Peters filed a claim for unemployment compensation benefits. Along with her application she submitted a doctor's note stating that she was able to work full-time and that she had not been advised to quit her job.

The unemployment commission awarded Peters benefits. The court of appeals, however, affirmed the trial court's reversal of that decision. The issue before the appellate court was whether Peters was "involuntarily" unemployed and whether she could waiver her right to unemployment benefits through the collective bargaining agreement. Peters argued that she was involuntarily unemployed because she was willing and able to continue her job beyond the 27th week and that she could have performed some other task for the remainder of her pregnancy. Continental, on the other hand, argued that Peters' union membership voluntarily subjected her to the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, including the maternity leave policy.

The court was unpersuaded by Peters' argument that her willingness and ability to work rendered her separation involuntary:

Peters' physical ability to continue working after her 27th week of pregnancy is immaterial to the question of whether she waived the right to unemployment benefits by virtue of a collective bargaining agreement. The terms of the maternity leave policy are clear.... Although Peters might have been physically capable of performing, and willing to perform, her duties as a flight attendant after the 27th week of pregnancy, her voluntary agreement, via the collective bargaining agreement, to the terms of the maternity leave policy makes these facts irrelevant.

Instead, the court believed that Peters', through her union, waiver her right to unemployment benefits:

As a union represented worker, Peters is a party to the collective bargaining agreement. As such, she agreed to stop flying after the 27th week of pregnancy in exchange for the accrual of seniority while on maternity leave, continued coverage under Continental's health insurance plan for the duration of the leave, the option of using sick time during the maternity leave, and full reinstatement at the end of the maternity leave..... These contract terms were reached as a result of arms-length negotiations between Continental and Peters' union, so Peters validly waived the right to unemployment compensation benefits.

The court distinguished between an arms-length, bargained for collective bargaining agreement and a unilaterally imposed policy, such as a retirement plan. The latter, the court reasoned, might render the separation involuntary.

What I find most interesting in the opinion, however, is the following throwaway line by the majority: "While is is not an issue in this case, we share the dissent's concern that there may be legal questions relating to the interplay of the collective bargaining agreement and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act ... and other potentially applicable federal or state laws." While I appreciate the court's concern that a paternalistic maternity leave policy might violate the pregnancy discrimination laws, the issue has long been settled that employers can implement leave of absence policies for legitimate safety reasons. Moreover, it does not appear that the airline harbored any discriminatory intent -- it allowed the accrual of seniority during maternity leave, provided continued health insurance coverage, gave an option for the use of sick time, guaranteed full reinstatement, and offered a 12-month postpartum leave of absence. Any claim for pregnancy discrimination would have to test the veracity of the airline's lack of available light duty. Provided, though, that there genuinely was no light duty available for Peters, I do not see any viable discrimination claim based on the mandatory, bargained-for leave of absence.