- Southwest Airlines flight attendant Corliss King spent five years amending employee health insurance plans in Illinois.
- King’s husband was ill and the state did not allow her to use her accumulated sick time to care for her relative.
- The law has been passed, but airlines are concerned about the financial and operational impact it could have on airlines.
A Southwest Airlines flight attendant was spurred on by her grief over her husband’s recent death to convene the Illinois Congress to make changes to the way airline employees use sick leave.
In 2015, Southwest flight attendant Corliss King found out that her husband, Terrance Hale, had liver failure. For five years, Hale was in and out of the hospital, forcing King to become the primary source of income for her family of four. Hale passed away in April 2020.
As a flight attendant, King told Insider she had flexibility in her schedule that allowed her to drop trips or take time off, but Illinois law forced her to take unpaid leave.
In 2017, King received a letter from Southwest saying she could use her sick time to care for her husband, although state lawmakers withdrew the compensation 12 days later.
King soon learned that Illinois had changed the law, making airline and railroad workers the only work groups in the state unable to use their sick time for family care. Their allowance was covered by their collective labor agreement on the basis of the Railway Labor Act.
King’s movement got off to a slow start, with the support of just one fellow flight attendant, Roy Soria. After a few phone calls to various unions, King got in touch with Illinois state senator Michael Hastings. He agreed to meet with King in 2018 to discuss eligibility for airline employees to use sick time for family care.
By constantly networking for a few months, King enlisted the support of unions such as the Air Line Pilots Association, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, and the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, and Hastings agreed to legislate.
In May 2021, after years of work, the Illinois Senate voted to pass the bill. Then, in October 2021, after months of battling for a vote, the legislation was passed by a bipartisan supermajority vote with the help of House Representative Joyce Mason.
The final step was to get Governor JB Pritzker to sign the bill, which he did on Dec. 10, officially enacting the legislation. According to King, 30,000 people can now use sick leave to care for their families.
“I couldn’t be more humbled to be a part of such a change, but most of all I have to say that my husband is leaving a legacy that will be felt far into the future,” King told Insider. “I don’t want another family, another woman, or another child to regret that they don’t have enough time when they just could have.”
The law’s positive impact on families will be huge, King said, but some airline groups are concerned about the financial or operational burden it could place on airlines. Hastings explained to Insider that airlines have a responsibility to shareholders and that the law could impose negative changes.
“In this situation, there is a potential
ramifications for the shareholder,” he said. “They may need to hire more employees to potentially offset the schedules, or change retirement policies because of various changes in employee benefits.”
Hastings also said the airline could sue in response to the law, but legal research and previous precedents show states may regulate matters related to the health and wellbeing of employees in the state in which they live or from which they fly. According to local Illinois news channel WMAY, there are similar laws in Maryland and Georgia.
Airlines for America, a lobby group that represents most major U.S. airlines, told Insider it supports the industry’s workers.
“A4A remains committed to ensuring that the highly mobile workforce of our airlines is treated fairly and consistently throughout their operations, regardless of which airport a particular crew flies to,” an A4A spokesperson told Insider.