Colorado fines Southwest Airlines for alleged violations of COVID-19 labor laws

DIA Southwest
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The ticketing area for Southwest Airlines at Denver International Airport Feb. 27, 2020. The airline has applied to lease 16 more gates at the airport.

Southwest Airlines is facing $1.3 million in fines for allegedly violating Colorado’s labor laws.

In a citation, the state’s department of labor and employment said it conducted a lengthy investigation, and found dozens of violations, mostly related to Colorado’s Healthy Families and Workplaces Act, which mandates protections for workers related to COVID-19.

“[Southwest Airlines] has violated nearly every HWA requirement and protection,” the labor department said in the citation dated March 17.

Among other things, state labor officials say Southwest refused to provide COVID-19-related leave for workers either diagnosed with the illness or showing symptoms, as well as for workers that needed to take a test or care for family members, according to the citation. On top of that, the airline failed to notify employees of their right to take paid sick leave, which meant thousands of workers were unaware that they could stay home rather than risk contagion in airplanes and airports, the citation said.

Last week, Southwest fought back by filing a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Denver. In the filing, Southwest alleges the Healthy Families and Workplaces Act “imposes a pervasive and comprehensive sick leave scheme on employers in Colorado.” Southwest argues it already provides “generous” paid leave benefits through its union contracts, and seeks relief from enforcement of the act’s provisions. In a separate lawsuit filed in Denver County court, Southwest is seeking a stay of the citation.

In a statement, Southwest says their lawsuits contend that the state's labor department is wrongly enforcing state law. They said exemptions in the state's Healthy Families and Workplaces Act law don't apply to Southwest because most of its employees are covered by collective bargaining agreements that already provide paid leave and other benefits they say are "some of the most generous" in the airline industry.

They said in the statement that state labor officials have "not identified any Southwest Employee who was prevented from taking leave or who was not paid for a qualifying leave."

Colorado lawmakers passed the Healthy Families and Workplaces Act in July 2020. The law requires all Colorado employers to provide paid sick leave in addition to leave related to COVID-19. Colorado first sent a notice of investigation to Southwest for potential violations of the law in March of last year.