In what at first blush might appear as a counter-intuitive ruling, an Illinois appellate court has held that a flight attendant who injured her knee on a flight from Denver to New York on the day before she was scheduled to work on a separate flight from a New York airport was not a traveling employee [United Airlines, Inc. v. Illinois Workers’ Comp. Comm’n, 2016 IL App (1st) 151693WC, 2016 Ill. App. LEXIS 59 (Feb. 11, 2016)]. Accordingly, a decision by the Commission that denied her claim for workers’ compensation benefits should have been affirmed by the circuit court. Her claim was barred by the going and coming rule.
The claimant lived in Boulder, Colorado, and worked on United’s flights originating out of JFK International Airport (“JFK”) in New York City. When she traveled from her residence to report for work at JFK, she usually traveled from her home in Boulder, Colorado, to the airport in Denver and then on one of United’s flights from Denver to New York. United did not pay the claimant for her time to travel from Colorado to New York and did not reimburse her for any travel expenses, meals, or hotel costs for traveling to or staying in New York. It paid her only for the time she performed flight attendant duties on aircraft departing JFK.
United did not require its New York City based employees to reside in the New York City area. Evidence indicated that 80 percent of United’s NY based flight attendants commuted to New York from areas outside the NY City area. In fact, in 2006, United offered the claimant a transfer to the Denver airport as her base airport so she could work from an airport closer to her chosen residence, but she declined the transfer and chose to keep JFK as her base airport. She testified that this was her personal preference and that it was her personal choice to commute to New York from Colorado.
She sustained a knee injury when, as she was returning to her seat on the flight to New York City, she caught her foot where the seat was bolted to the floor. She heard a pop in her left knee and felt it collapse. A bit later, she was diagnosed with an ACL tear.
Arbitrator Said Claimant Was Traveling Employee
An arbitrator found that the claimant qualified as a traveling employer for purposes of awarding compensation under the Act. The Commission reversed and noted that after the arbitrator filed his decision, the supreme court filed an opinion in Venture-Newberg-Perini, Stone & Webster v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Comm’n, 2013 IL 115728, 376 Ill. Dec. 823, 1 N.E.3d 535, in which the court discussed the criteria for establishing traveling employee status within the meaning of the Act. The Commission determined that the supreme court’s analysis in Venture-Newberg applied to the facts of the present case and that the analysis established that the claimant did not qualify as a traveling employee at the time of her accident. The circuit court reversed the Commission, concluding that when the claimant boarded the flight from Denver to New York, she “essentially began her work.”
The appellate court said the circuit court was wrong. Agreeing with the Commission, the appellate court indicated that indeed Venture-Newberg did apply. Here, the claimant made a personal choice to live in Boulder. United had no control over where its flight attendants lived. The claimant’s duties only related to specific flights originating from JFK. At the time the claimant injured her knee, she was engaged in her regular commute from her chosen residence to the city where her job assignment was located. The appellate court indicated the facts here were analogous to those in Venture-Newberg. The court acknowledged that in Venture-Newberg, the employee was a temporary worker, whereas here the claimant was a permanent employee. That was not a crucial issue, however.
Important Policy Issue at Stake
The court added that the Supreme Court, in Venture-Newberg, had articulated an important public policy. Applied to the facts of the instant case, the appellate court observed that a United flight attendant with JFK as his or her base airport and who permanently resided in the New York City area would not be entitled to benefits as a traveling employee if he or she was injured during his or her regular commute to the airport. Likewise, a United flight attendant based out of the same airport should not qualify as a traveling employee if she was injured in her regular commute to JFK merely because she chose to live in Colorado instead of New York City and had a longer commute. Whether the claimant resided in New York City or in Colorado is a personal decision in which United had no interest.