- Airlines are struggling to avoid laying off employees during the coronavirus crisis. However, thousands of airline and airport contract workers have already been laid off in the past week, with more layoffs.
- Many of these contract workers make close to minimum wage and live paycheck-to-paycheck.
- Business Insider spoke with multiple airline contractors who have been laid off in the past week. Many of them are worried they will be left out of any bailout package that the US government may authorise for airlines.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Bianca Chapman has been a security queue officer at Philadelphia International Airport since 2014. The mother of five – and dog-mum of three – saw herself more as a helper, someone who assisted passengers: Guiding them to the right line, the right desk, the right gate.
At the end of her 4 a.m. to noon shift on Wednesday, she went down to her break room, and was told not to come back. She was being laid off.
The world’s airlines have seen a staggering drop in demand as the novel coronavirus has spread around the globe. As more countries close their borders and the US tells Americans to avoid unnecessary travel or physical proximity to others, air traffic has fallen, and airlines have found themselves haemorrhaging cash with no end in sight. Now they are seeking help from the government.
US airlines pledged in a letter signed by CEOs on Saturday that if the federal government grants the bailout package they have asked for, there would be no layoffs or furloughs before September – if at all.
However, that fails to account for the many thousands of employees who work for airport and airline contractors around the country. These workers often make less than the airlines’ own employees, but provide services like baggage handling and security, and often help passengers by pushing wheelchairs, managing check-ins, and keeping airport processes moving.
Business Insider spoke with multiple workers who have lost their jobs over the past week, or who have been warned that they will be laid off this week. As worries mount about how to make rent, provide for their families, or maintain their communities, the workers all expressed fear that they would be left behind even if a rescue package provides relief for struggling airlines and their workers.
Do you work in the airline industry and have thoughts on the coronavirus situation? Business Insider would like to hear from you. Email this reporter at [email protected].
Essential tasks outsourced for cheap
Chapman, who initially worked for McGinn Security and later SOS Security, was among the first employees who passengers would meet when they stepped out of their cabs at Philadelphia Airport. She would direct them to the right security line, make sure they had their things ready for the checkpoint, or would help them get to the right check-in counter.
“Flying is stressful enough,” she said. “I’d just help to keep everything at ease. I was always that security officer who was there waiting for my passengers.”
She liked being helpful, and being social.
“It really was a fun job,” she added. “Just meeting all different types of people, every day was a learning experience.”
Chapman said that she could see the real effect of her daily work in the average wait-times in security and check-in lines.
“We helped get the average wait time down from 45 minutes to an average of 13 minutes,” she said, citing a new queue-management strategy that her employer helped the Transportation Security Administration implement. “Our work was very impactful there.”
Contract employees fill a variety of roles for airlines, including “wheelchair pushers,” or agents, who help and accompany passengers in need of physical assistance when they arrive at the airport.
They typically make close to minimum wage, although in some places that was increased in recent months to $US15 per hour.
“We take them from the ticket counter through to the gate, and assist them onto the plane, and help people from the plane either onto their connecting flights or to the arrival areas, and help them with their luggage,” Jerome Perry, Jr., a wheelchair agent at San Jose International Airport. “You get to meet a lot of different people, a lot of interesting people. It’s pretty fun.”
Perry still has his job, but as a union representative, he was part of meetings last week in which he learned that layoffs would happen this week. He expects to be among those who may lose their jobs.
Perry is 54 years old and has diabetes, making him high-risk if he contracts the coronavirus, and worries about being able to afford his medical care and make rent. Insurance is too expensive through work, so he gets insurance through Covered California, the state’s Affordable Care Act marketplace.
“I used to be homeless, and I worry about that,” he said. “If this thing goes on longer than a couple of months, me and a lot of my coworkers would be facing homelessness.”
Perry hopes to find another job, but he’s pessimistic; everything is shut down because of the outbreak.
“There’s no place you can go and apply for a job because a lot of these places are closed,” he said. “Only thing I can do is apply for government assistance.”
Another wheelchair pusher, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, said she lost her job this week with no warning at all.
Jesaberthe Morancy has worked at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport since 2015 as both a wheelchair agent and a customer service representative. She’d fill in wherever she was needed for the day.
“You help others that can’t really help themselves,” she said. “As a customer service agent, you deplane the aircraft, or enplane it, make sure everyone gets on board fine, or help check in people at the ticket counter.”
At the end of her shift on Friday, as she went to clock out, she was told that a manager wanted to speak to her. She walked into his office as another colleague was leaving, and took a seat.
“He started to elaborate on the crisis, and about how they would be laying people off, and then he told me that I was one of those people,” she said. “He said that hopefully, in a few months when this is all over, they’d be contacting me if I wanted to come back and work for them.”
The single mother of two was already living with her parents, after her rent went up to from $US975 to $US1,300 per month. Morancy made just $US15.12 per hour at the airport.
“I’m still in shock,” she said. “I keep thinking I have a job.”
Olga Martinez, who worked with customs in Miami to greet international passengers after clearing immigration, was distraught over losing her job.
Martinez injured her foot last year and had one operation, but had postponed a second surgery because she could not afford to take time off – she did not have sick days.
“My refrigerator is empty, I still have to pay for my rent, I have to pay for my electricity, and I still need surgery,” she said. “What am I going to do?
Contract aviation workers are bracing for disaster
There are about 125,000 contracted airline and airport workers in the US, estimates Rob Hill, vice president of the Local 32BJ chapter of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), based in New York.
“These people are wheelchair workers, cabin cleaners, security officers, building cleaners, customer service, passenger service, who perform a vital function for the airlines,” Hill said.
For years, these workers have argued that they are underpaid, often making less than those who have performed similar roles as direct employees of airlines, airports, or government agencies. Many rely on some form of public assistance despite full-time employment, with minimum-wage salaries failing to keep up with rising costs of living – even as airline profits have soared.
Contract workers also say they live without full benefits, including sick days, which has been another source of concern as they interact with passengers who may unknowingly be carrying the virus.
Labour is generally the biggest expense airlines face, and outsourcing certain tasks to workers who are paid less can help keep the share of the total costs down.
“They’re living paycheck to paycheck, and now they’re told there is no next paycheck,” Hill said.
As debate over the aviation-industry bailout continues, workers and union officials are asking to be included in any assistance that may be offered to airlines and their own employees.
“These workers are always the second-class citizens of the airlines in the sense that they use contracting as a way to cut costs,” Hill said. “It’s a form of posturing, the airlines pretending they’re not laying people off when in reality they are, just a different set of people.”
“If we’re bailing out the airlines, they have to bail out the workers,” Kyle Bragg, president of Local 32BJ, at a press conference. “Contract workers make up 30% of the airport work force. Leaving them behind would be catastrophic for our communities.”
In a draft of the House bailout package seen by Business Insider, $US3 billion in direct payroll aid is included for airline contract workers, with those employees included in other protections granted by the bill. However, the bill has not yet been finalised as of this writing.
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