Union wants help for airport workers as government considers bailing out airlines

Newark_Airport Wikimedia Commons Scott Brody
Newark Liberty International Airport. (Wikimedia Commons/ Scott Brody)

As the federal government has started to consider bailing out the airline industry, at the urging of major U.S. airlines as the coronavirus pandemic worsens and air travel has plummeted, a major labor organization said on Tuesday that any package must include protections and assistance for airport workers as they face potential layoffs and economic struggles.

Major airlines, including American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta, are seeking a bailout of more than $50 billion, including grants, loans and tax relief, to prevent airlines from running out of money by year’s end, according to their trade association.

The White House is looking at a possible bailout, Larry Kudlow, director of the White House National Economic Council, said at a Monday press conference.

“I just don’t want to be specific. We’re looking at it,” Kudlow said, adding that he wouldn’t use the term bailout.

“This is more in our view a liquidity help, a cash flow help,” Kudlow said. “We see this virus problem as a matter of months, not years, and we don’t see the airlines failing. But if they get into a cash crunch, we’re going to try to help them. We’re consulting with House and Senate leadership to see what works.”

Leaders of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which is the country’s largest union of service and care workers and includes over 32,000 airport workers, said any bailout must include help for workers.

“It is essential we put working people at the center of any industry bailout,” said SEIU President Mary Kay Henry.

Workers often have low pay without sick days, and face many layoffs as air travel continues to drop, Henry said. She added that a bailout should include layoff protections, paid sick leave and affordable health care for workers.

In the airline industry and across other industries impacted by the pandemic, Henry said, “We are watching closely to see how workers are treated in this moment when they are the ones hardest hit.”

There have been some layoffs of airport workers so far, noted Rob Hill, Vice President of 32BJ-SEIU, but he said there is real concern that bigger layoffs are ahead and they are trying to mitigate the damage, including at East Coast international airports which could be among the hardest hit.

“These workers really are the front lines of this crisis,” Hill said. “The point here is to be at the table making sure workers are protected.” Henry added that SEIU has started to have talks with lawmakers, and has reached out to airlines but hasn’t spoken with them yet.

“This global pandemic has turned my life upside down,” said Takiah Garrett, who has worked in customer service at Newark Liberty International Airport for eight years. She said airport workers are in close contact with passengers and most likely to be affected first.

Garrett said her kids’ schools had closed down. “When you have a child you are the primary babysitter,” she said. “It becomes a battle to pay for bills, to pay for something a child may need.”

“If airlines are getting bailed out, I need to be too,” Garret added. “The bailout cannot leave behind contracted workers like me, who make air travel possible.”

Benjamin McMillan, a wheelchair attendant for three years at Philadelphia International Airport, said the pandemic has created stress on his life, including as a single father with two teenage boys. Costs have gone up having to pay for more meals with schools being closed, he said, and there isn’t enough money for groceries after taking care of other bills.

“If Congress is going to help the airlines with a bailout, I don’t think it should happen without all the airport workers,” McMillan said. “I don’t see how we’re going to provide for our loved ones if we don’t get support.”

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