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How a Southwest flight attendant successfully lobbied to change Illinois law after not being able to use sick leave to care for her dying husband

Corliss King and Terrance Hale

Courtesy of Corliss King

  • Southwest Airlines flight attendant Corliss King spent five years changing Illinois’ employee sick leave law.
  • King’s husband was ill and the state would not allow her to use her accrued sick time to care for her family member.
  • The law passed, but airline groups worry about the financial and operational impact it could have on carriers.

A Southwest Airlines flight attendant was spurred by her grief from the recent death of her husband to rally Illinois Congress to make changes to the way airline employees can use sick time.

In 2015, Southwest flight attendant Corliss King found out her husband, Terrance Hale, was diagnosed with liver failure. For five years, Hale was in and out of the hospital, forcing King to become the primary income for her family of four. Hale died 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, because of Illinois law, she was forced to take unpaid leave.

In 2017, King received a letter from Southwest saying she could use her sick time to take care of her husband, though state lawmakers rescinded the allowance 12 days later.

King soon learned Illinois changed the legislation making airline and railway workers the only workgroups in the state that could not use their sick time for family care. This is because their allowance was governed by their collective bargaining agreements under the Railway Labor Act. 

King’s movement started slow, with support from just one fellow flight attendant named Roy Soria. After making a few calls to several unions, King got in contact with Illinois State Senator Michael Hastings. He agreed to meet with King in 2018 to discuss making airline employees eligible to use sick time for family care. 

Roy Sora, Michael Hastings, and Corliss KingRoy Soria, Michael Hastings, and Corliss King

Roy Soria

Through constant networking over a few months, King enlisted the support of unions like the Air Line Pilots Association, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, and the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, and Hastings agreed to draft legislation.

Coalition of flight attendants supporting King's legislationCoalition of flight attendants supporting King’s legislation

Roy Soria

Coalition of flight attendants supporting King's legislationCoalition of flight attendants supporting King’s legislation

Roy Soria

In May 2021, after years of work, the Illinois Senate voted to pass the law. Then, in October 2021, after months of fighting for a vote, the legislation passed with a bipartisan supermajority with the help of House Representative Joyce Mason.

Corliss King and her coalition of flight attendant supports with House Representatives Joyce Mason and Sam Yingling the day the law passed the HouseCorliss King and her coalition of flight attendant supports with House Representatives Joyce Mason and Sam Yingling the day the law passed the House

Courtesy of Corliss King

The final step was to get Governor JB Pritzker to sign off on the bill, which he did on December 10, officially putting the legislation into law. Now, 30,000 people will be able to use sick time to care for their families, according to King.

“I could not be more humbled that I get to be a part of such change, but more than anything, I get to say my husband leaves a legacy that will be felt long into the future,” King told Insider. “I don’t want to see another family, another wife, or another child, regret not having enough time when they simply could have.”

The positive impact the law has on families will be tremendous, according to King, but some airline groups worry about the financial or operational burden it could have on airlines. Hastings explained to Insider that airlines have a responsibility to the shareholder, and the law could impose negative changes.

“In this situation, there is a potential fiduciary impact to the shareholder,” he said. “They may have to hire more employees to possibly offset schedules, or amend retirement policies because of various changes in employees benefits.”

Hastings also said that the airline can sue in response to the law, but legal research and past precedent show states are allowed to regulate matters in regards to the health and wellbeing of workers in the state they reside in or fly out of. According to local Illinois news station WMAY, there are similar laws in Maryland and Georgia.

Airlines for America, a lobbying group that represents most major US carriers, told Insider that it supports the industry’s employees.

“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,” an A4A spokesperson told Insider.

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