The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or as it’s more affectionately known the CARES Act, was meant to secure the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of airline workers across the United States. Airlines have been handed billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded grants and low-interest loans to keep on paying their employees, whether there’s work for them or not, until at least September.
But in practice, that’s not how the system is working at some carriers. Both Delta Air Lines and the much smaller carrier jetBlue have been accused of forcing thousands of employees to take pay cuts despite the unprecedented government bailout and thousands more continue to be encouraged to “voluntarily” take unpaid leave of absences.
Southwest Airlines chief executive Gary Kelly, meanwhile, has urged employees to take pay cuts across the board or face the first involuntary furloughs in the company’s history. While United Airlines has repeatedly warned staffers that lay-offs will likely come as soon as the relief fund dries up in September. Kelly has urged employees to swallow the cuts because the airline needed to “fight like we have never fought before” to lower costs.
According to a report from the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), thousands of Delta workers are being forced to work less hours per week without pay. That’s on top of the tens of thousands of employees who had already voluntarily agreed to take an unpaid leave of absence to help out the Atlanta-based carrier.
Even after Delta chief executive Ed Bastian confirmed that the airline would receive $5.4 billion in government aid specifically to pay workers wages he asked even more employees to give up their pay. “An extraordinary 30,000 of you have volunteered for unpaid leaves of absence,” Bastian revealed on April 3.
That number has since risen to 37,000 employees taking some form of unpaid leave and is on top of the thousands of workers who won’t receive pay for culled hours.
“We still need volunteers to consider short- and long-term leaves of absence,” Bastian urged on April 14. “…it is a vital part of our effort to safeguard Delta jobs,” the desperate memo continued.
At jetBlue, thousands of employees will be expected to take 24 days of unpaid leave from now until September 30. The measure would appear to contradict the terms of the bailout which stop airlines from cutting workers pay and benefits and from laying anyone off until at least the end of September.
In fact, the grants were calculated using the average wages that workers normally earn. So if they are now taking unpaid leave, where is the extra money going?
“Opportunist corporate actors such as yourselves (Delta and JetBlue) are using the good faith support of airline workers around the country and at every carrier to screw your own workforces and greedily undermine the intent of the federal stimulus funds that you demanded,” Michael Klemm and David Supplee of the IAM wrote in an open letter to the two airlines.
Klemm and Supplee have called on the airlines to “reverse course” and restore workers wages. Delta and jetBlue haven’t yet responded.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.