“I said, ‘2020 will be my year.'”
Soon, news of a new coronavirus from Wuhan, China, began to spread. In her first few months on the job, the 29-year-old was working on evacuation flights as people tried to reach their home countries while the world was blocked.
He is now on the verge of seeing the end of his longtime dream, facing firing as one of the 16,300 United employees – and more than 35,000 in the airline industry ̵
Employees facing leave will be victims of the ongoing devastation the pandemic has inflicted on airlines, which have seen demand for travel plummet since March, but also of a Congress that says it wants to protect its jobs with billions of dollars. dollars in aid and yet was unable to agree on a bill to that effect.
“I feel a bit abandoned by our representatives,” said Ballesteros, who is based in San Francisco.
Leaders from his union, the Flight Attendants Association, along with other business groups and airline heads were in Washington last week to make a final push for an extension of financial aid known as the Payroll Support Program. . At a press conference in the shadow of the Capitol on Tuesday afternoon, their frustration was clear.
“What Congress and the administration did in March was a major effort to save the US economy and to save aviation,” said United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby. His airline, which employs 79,000 people, received $ 5 billion in the coronavirus first aid package.
“But this is taking longer than most people expected six months ago and the reality is that we need to do more to keep those professionals and to keep their support for the economy intact.”
Lawmakers say they had no plans to create a precipice when they gave airlines their first $ 25 billion in aid on the condition that they didn’t lay off workers until October. Like many Americans, they expected the virus to be under control. Instead, it continues to spread and air travel is stuck at around 700,000 passengers a day, a third of its normal rate.
The prospects for a deal remain uncertain, with Democrats and Republicans still negotiating a larger aid package, which would likely include airline aid.
An “unprecedented” crisis
Airline employees aren’t the only ones suffering as the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the US economy. But their situation is particularly dire because the industry is concentrated in a few very large and very visible companies, and there is a bright deadline on the calendar. Aviation employees may not come to mind when many Americans think of “essential workers”. But airline employees say they risked their health to keep planes in the air during the pandemic, transporting those who needed to travel and moving essential goods, including medical supplies. About 45-50% of freight typically moves in passenger jets.
The more than 35,000 people laid off are only part of the history of the industry. Tens of thousands more have already taken unpaid leave or left their airlines permanently. Others have seen hours cut and worry about wage cuts this fall.
More than 1,800 United States airline planes remain parked – a third of the industry’s fleet – and service cuts are likely to follow job losses.
Although the aviation industry has taken a hit since 9/11, a different coronavirus outbreak in 2003 and a deep recession in 2008, economists say those episodes – although painful – pale in comparison to the calamity of this one. year.
Department of Labor data released this month shows that there are more than 100,000 fewer aviation jobs in the United States than in March, a decline of more than 20%.
“This is just unprecedented,” said Joseph B. Sobieralski, an air labor expert at Purdue University.
This combined figure goes beyond airlines to cover both passenger air travel and cargo-related employment, and doesn’t include many support jobs and suspended layoffs from the federal bailout. But the number is a good substitute for measuring the severity of the recession, Sobieralski said.
The uncertainty of life in pandemic-stricken America has created a historic crisis for airlines and their employees.
“The 9/11 situation was sudden. It was shocking. He rejected people on their heels. This situation seems to be a little more sinister, simply because we don’t know, “said Eric Jones, chair of the maintenance science department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and a former Southwest Airlines mechanic.” There’s a sense of it. unawareness, well, when will the covid retire? When will this vaccine arrive? “
Redundant employees will have the right to be called back to their old jobs, but industry leaders and analysts expect the recovery to take years.
The Trump administration has faced sharp criticism for downplaying and mishandling the pandemic and for failing to put in place a nationwide testing infrastructure and other measures that could slow the spread of the virus and give airline passengers and others the confidence to resume a more normal life.
Daniel K. Elwell, deputy director of the Federal Aviation Administration, recently told state aviation leaders that the government is consulting with airlines and international officials about plans to “incentivize travel by keeping passengers safe and sound” and said the details will be available. The goal, Elwell told the National Association of State Aviation Officials, is not “to create zero risk or eliminate any possibility of covid”, but rather “to bring the highest level of health safety into the system without making it so burdensome that we can’t. to fly. “
Individual airlines have adopted different strategies in response to the crisis. United and American Airlines began warning of mass layoffs in the summer. But Delta Air Lines managed to avoid it, instead using the summer to convince 40,000 of the 90,000 people employed in March to go on temporary unpaid leave and another 17,000 to accept severance packages. The company received $ 5.4 billion from the payroll support program.
Delta leaders praised employees’ willingness to make sacrifices for the good of the company, but two flight attendants interviewed described receiving a barrage of emails that made them feel strongly urged to leave.
“I definitely feel like it’s implied, you’re a bad employee if you don’t take vacation,” said one of the flight attendants, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation and like most Delta employees, is unprotected from a union.
Delta said in a statement that the decision on whether to take leave “was left to each and every Delta employee on their own and their families.”
“The people of Delta have gone to great lengths to step up during this pandemic which is completely a function of our unique culture and why there will be no involuntary permits for Delta frontline flight and ground attendants in the US,” the company said.
United and American, which are heavily unionized, have kept most of their employees on their payrolls, and the two airlines account for nearly all of their upcoming job losses. American, which has accepted $ 5.8 billion in payroll support, is preparing to lay off 19,000 of its 107,000 employees. CEO Doug Parker said that with his company burning $ 1 billion a month, he has no choice but to move on.
“As painful as it is this is absolutely what we should be doing,” Parker said in a telephone interview from the airline’s office in Washington, where he spent the week pursuing the campaign for more federal assistance.
If the money does come in, Parker and Kirby both said they expect travel demand will be robust enough in six months for the industry to start over on its own.
However, Parker said that if workers are laid off, the airline will not be able to quickly hire enough people to meet that demand because it will require months of retraining, which he believes could hinder a broader economic recovery. .
“It would be a really bad thing for American Airlines and it would be a really bad thing for our country,” he said.
Southwest, also largely unionized, is trying to avoid this by agreeing to pay thousands of employees not to come to work – up to five years in the case of pilots – or to retire early.
The carrier, which employs 62,000 employees, received $ 3.3 billion from the payroll program. Southwest also raised more than $ 15 billion by borrowing, selling assets and leasing them and issuing new shares.
With its “Extended Emergency Time Off” program, the company is trying to stop the bleeding of money on paychecks, but still maintains ties with the employees it has already spent large sums on training and hopes it will eventually need. again.
Volunteers keep a significant portion of their salary and all of their benefits. About 12,500 employees participate. The pilots were offered about half of their pay, a Southwestern pilot said in an interview, although the company declined to provide specific compensation figures. The company can call pilots back to work with a minimum of 30 days’ notice, but said it would try volunteers first “if more pilots were needed.”
More than 4,200 flight attendants, mechanics, pilots and customer service and ground staff have agreed to leave Southwest entirely, the airline said in a regulatory document. Employees said the departures were sweetened with generous incentive packages.
Avoiding layoffs is a point of pride at Southwest, something the company prides itself on never having to do in its 49-year history. Chief Executive Gary Kelly said Southwest is not planning any wage cuts or involuntary layoffs this year, although “we will continue to plan for multiple weak scenarios and stay prepared.”
While avoiding the pain of layoffs, the thousands of retirements and early departures have made the airline a tumultuous, sometimes emotional, stretch.
“What’s great is that you are shedding your best earnings,” said the Southwest driver, who spoke on condition of anonymity because employees are not allowed to speak to the media. “Help us all.”
But the idea of disrupting their career and time in the cockpit was a struggle for many, the pilot said.
“A lot of these guys love it. They love what they do, ”said the pilot. “But the package was so good it really made us think. There are many people who would like to be able to take it, including myself. “
Some lawmakers have questioned airlines’ efforts to cut labor costs by accepting billions in federal aid to support their payrolls. The rules for the payroll subsidy program, part of the massive aid package known as the Cares Act, stated that airlines could not unintentionally put people out of work or cut pay if they accepted the money, but some airlines interpreted the language. in the sense that the cutting of working hours was allowed.
Delta has cut working hours by 25 percent for many employees, a policy Delta CEO Ed Bastian said will continue through the end of the year. United tried to impose a cut to around 15,000 hours of work, but backed down under pressure from political leaders and a lawsuit from one of its unions. Several airline contractors are being investigated by House Democrats, accused of firing workers immediately before receiving the aid money on the payroll.
Nonetheless, there is broad bipartisan support for the renewal of the program through April, even among those like Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Who questioned why the Treasury Department allowed companies they get help to cut the hours. He said he hopes “it can be re-authorized quickly” and that new safeguards can be included in an extension.
The problem remained of finding a way to turn this support into legislation.
Earlier last week, Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) And Susan Collins (R-Maine), who lead committees with responsibility for aviation, have presented a standalone bill to extend the wage protection program. About two dozen other senators have signed up as co-sponsors of the legislation, including two Democrats.
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the Trump administration wanted lawmakers to approve one-time bills for aid, including aid for airlines.
But Democratic leaders in the House have pledged to transfer several trillions of dollars in aid as a single package. Representative Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), Who chairs the Aviation Subcommittee, said he cannot predict a self-contained bill will succeed when there are also local government workers whose jobs are online and people are about to be. evicted.
“All of these people and many more need their needs reflected in a covid-19 aid package,” Larsen said.
On Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) Said she would begin drafting a new proposal that included aid for airlines and took steps to open negotiations with the Trump administration.
For frontline airline workers who count the days until October 1, life’s regular struggles have been amplified to enormous proportions by the virus and the imminent loss of their livelihoods.
The struggles of the workers intensified
In March, when President Trump signed the Cares Act, Toni Valentine felt like she finally had time to breathe.
The wage protection program included in the law gave her the confidence that she could keep her job as a booking agent at United, she said, and gave her family stability at a time when much else in their world was uncertain.
For Valentine, 2019 was a difficult year: six months after starting a new job, her husband suffered a severe stroke.
“We have lost an entire income, medical benefits,” he said. “It seemed like it happened overnight.”
These days, Valentine, 41, who has worked at United for 15 years, finds herself anxious and worried. Worried about supporting six children. Concerned about bills: telephone, electricity and gas. Worried about what she will do if she gets fired and loses medical coverage in the midst of a pandemic.
His family is doing what they can. Her 19-year-old son dropped out of college to help her manage, taking care of her younger siblings, and overseeing their online education. She is grateful for this and other little things. Her voice trembled as she remembered how quietly relieved she was that school would be online and not in person – there was no extra money for new school supplies and clothes this year.
And so he prays. And it works. And pray. And it works. And every day he said it gets a little harder.
“I have to put on this brave face and be the best employee I have to know… I may not have a job,” said Valentine, who lives in suburban Detroit. “And that’s the hardest thing ever.”
Andrea ’Myers has spent the last few months in a fog of worry. Myers, also a United booking agent, was diagnosed with cancer in February and underwent surgery to remove a tumor in March, just as the pandemic was starting to close cities across the country.
Because the hospital only allowed one person to stay with her due to coronavirus restrictions, three cars laden with relatives remained in the hospital parking lot for nine hours while she underwent surgery. While he was in the hospital recovering, he got covid-19.
But Myers returned to work in July, relieved that he still has a job. Then came the news of possible permits. Now, just days before the deadline, he is grappling with the idea that he may have to leave the company he has worked for for 21 years, losing his health insurance. Her husband was fired from his job as an electrician, as was her son, who worked for Hertz.
“We just need to make sure people understand that we are people,” said Myers, 46, who also lives in Detroit. “We’re not just a number at United Airlines. We have families. We have things we need to do.”
For Ballesteros, the excitement of becoming a flight attendant began to give way to terror as the virus took hold.
In March, she flew in a packed 787 to Munich, bringing German residents home from the United States. At first he was excited to go to Europe, only to realize he couldn’t leave his hotel. And when he was in the van on his way to the hotel, he learned that his adoptive father had had a heart attack.
He had already undergone chemotherapy and Ballesteros said he avoided visiting him so as not to potentially expose him to the coronavirus. He died just as he was returning from Munich.
“I haven’t gone home yet,” she said. “I couldn’t hug my foster mom.”
If there is no help, Ballesteros said he doesn’t know what he will do. At one point it looked like he’d lined up a bartender job at a new restaurant, but due to the pandemic, it won’t open. Unemployment will barely cover the rent and payment of the car. He spent his savings breaking a Las Vegas lease and moving to San Francisco for his new job.
“I’m basically absolute,” he said.
He plans to continue working this week. So he may have to hand over the property of his company. But, Ballesteros said, he would keep his wings.