Airline workers still reeling from pandemic, harassment, low pay, lack of sick benefits

From mass furloughs, voluntary job losses and retirements, to current issues of understaffing and a surge in cases of harassment and assaults by unruly passengers, workers at airports and airlines continue to bear the brunt of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the air travel industry. 

The sector was among the hardest hit by COVID-19. Around 100,000 jobs were lost in air travel in the first few months of the pandemic. Through three rounds of funding, Congress provided the industry with $54 billion in federal assistance to keep workers on payrolls, while surges in the Delta variant have stifled air travel recovery domestically and internationally. 

Passengers on airlines in the US are not required to be vaccinated or have a negative COVID test to fly and some airlines did not support extending mask mandates on US domestic flights. 

“In my entire career, I have never experienced what we are experiencing right now,” said an American Airlines flight attendant who requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation as they are not authorized to speak with the media. “I go to work now and I always worry what’s going to happen, what’s going to trip somebody up, trigger their anger. It’s a whole new ballgame out there right now and it’s a different type of passenger we’re seeing right now.” 

They explained flight attendants are constantly dealing with irate passengers who refuse to comply with federal mask mandates for all flights, and would like to see more support from management and paid self defense training provided to all flight attendants. 

While enforcement of COVID-19 safety protections has fallen on flight attendants, workers are still concerned with contracting the virus or spreading it to loved ones, and grappling with the mental and emotional stress caused by the pandemic on their working conditions and losing several coworkers who have passed away from the virus. 

“Flight attendants are fatigued. We understand these are unprecedented times, but our management teams need to ensure our rest periods are protected, our hotel accommodations and our legal rest periods are available, and that our flight schedules are reasonable,” they added. “They're not reasonable right now. We're being flown to the maximum with minimum rest.”

So far in 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration has issued more than $1 million in fines against unruly airline passengers and received around 3,900 individual reports. 

“Everything is kind of chaotic,” said Sara Nelson, President of the AFA-CWA, which represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 17 different airlines. “It'seven harder for flight attendants because now every single person who's coming on a plane is kind of looking for what to do, asking a lot of questions.”

A national survey of nearly 5,000 flight attendants released in July 2021 by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO (AFA) found 85 percent of flight attendants have experienced unruly passengers in 2021, and one out of five have experienced physical incidents. 

Other workers in the airline industry are also still dealing with risks associated with COVID-19, a lack of sick leave benefits and increased workloads due to the extra work associated with widespread understaffing in the industry and trying to communicate to customers and management in regards to changing and implementing COVID-19 safety protocols. 

A Delta Airlines ramp agent in the Midwest US, who requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, claimed their managers threatened to start reprimanding employees for calling out of work for double shifts, which are the only type of shifts they have, after the worker had used their accrued sick time to call out because they were not feeling well and went to get tested for coronavirus. 

“All of my shifts are doubled, so what management is saying is that I am not allowed to get sick at all,” they said. “We went from ‘stop the spread’ and ‘don't come to work if you have symptoms’ to being reprimanded for complying with that policy.”

A Delta Airlines spokesperson said in an email, “Our leaders are encouraged and empowered to support our people who need time off to get tested and take care of themselves.”

Several airline industry workers are employed by third party contractors, and have long suffered from low pay and a lack of any benefits or healthcare, issues that have become harder to deal with during the pandemic as domestic travel recovered significantly through the summer of 2021. 

Jane Spurka, a wheelchair attendant for a contractor, Bags Inc, at Orlando International Airport in Florida, was furloughed from March 2020 to August 2020. Shortly after returning to work, Spurka was injured on the job and had to work through the pain of her injury until her workers’ compensation claim was processed in May 2021 and she’s been on light duty since. 

“We are understaffed, overworked and unappreciated,” said Spurka, who makes $7.98 an hour plus tips. “If we are sick, whether it's just a simple head cold or the flu, we have no choice but to work. There are no paid days. We don't get any kind of anything from the company.”

She explained wheelchair attendants have been so overwhelmed that they haven’t been able to take breaks, are often taking on two passengers at once, and are subjected to anger and frustration from airline passengers. 

The SEIU is currently pushing to enact prevailing wage and benefit standards at airports around the US that receive federal funding, as thousands of workers at airports, such as the wheelchair attendants at Orlando International Airport, work for low wages with few or no benefits. 

“At airports, we have 50,000 or so, predominantly workers of color nationally who do the grunt work, cleaning the terminals, all the work that you associate with airport workers,” said Rob Hill, Vice President of 32BJ SEIU, which has won service contract provisions establishing wage and benefit floors for workers in the New York City area, but are now seeking to establish provisions to cover workers at airports nationwide. “The extent the federal government is going to pour billions of dollars into airlines and airports, we think there should be a requirement, a service contract provision, to require a basic floor that airport jobs are decent paying jobs that have health care.” 

Joseph Gourgue, 62, a gate agent and wheelchair attendant at Orlando International Airport, recently contracted COVID and received no pay for the two weeks of work he missed while quarantined. He also spread the virus to his wife. He has pre-existing health conditions and said he would have stayed home from work longer, but could not afford to do so. 

“All the company does is make sure you work every day, and make sure you get your job done,” said Gourgue, who also gets paid just above the federal minimum wage and relies on tips from passengers. “This is why I’ve been working so hard with my colleagues for two years to unionize. They’re going to have to negotiate, to look into our eyes. I don’t like the idea of workers being taken advantage of, but this is America right now.” 

A spokesperson for Bags Inc declined to comment on specific employees, citing company policy, but added in an email, “Generally speaking, employee wages and eligibility for benefits vary depending on the position, responsibilities, experience, location, client, full-time/part-time status and other factors. We value our employees and are committed to providing a safe work environment and following government-mandated regulations where applicable.”

'They only want to offer us nickels and dimes': CVS workers demand better pay and staffing

Hundreds of CVS workers are fighting for a new contract after facing abuse, understaffing, and low pay throughout the pandemic. CVS made over $7 billion in profits in 2020 and has offered workers a five cent raise.

CVS reported a profit of more than $7bn in 2020 and posted a $2.8bn profit in the second quarter of 2021. CVS is ranked the eighth largest retailer in the US based on 2020 sales and its parent company, CVS Health, is the fourth largest corporation in the US by revenue.

Read more at The Guardian;

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/sep/15/cvs-workers-petition-wages-working-conditions-covid

Warrior Met Coal celebrates labor day with propaganda website attempting to smear striking coal miners

1,100 coalminers represented by the United Mine Workers of America in Brookwood, Alabama, have been on strike since the start of April against Warrior Met Coal amid new union contract negotiations.

Heading into the six month of their strike, Warrior Met Coal decided to celebrate Labor Day weekend by publishing a ‘facts’ website about the strike, which is just a list of disingenuous analogies or claims, often no citations, raw data, or actual sources, and many of the facts don’t even disprove the claims made by workers on strike.

Warrior Met Coal took over the Brookwood, Alabama mines previously owned by Walter Energy in 2016. During bankruptcy proceedings, coal miners accepted several concessions, including pay cuts. Now in their new contract negotiations, miners are asking for proper compensation to reflect those concessions. The union estimates the concessions amount to around $1.1 billion, while Warrior Met Coal executives receive millions of dollars in compensation annually while never mining a piece of coal themselves.

One of the most egregious and shameful “facts” cited on Warrior Met Coal’s website is comparing the average compensation for a miner to the average salary in Alabama, inferring these workers already make enough or too much money for the work they do, obviously never mentioning the six figure salaries of the PR flacks who wrote the content for the website or the company’s executives and shareholders, which include hedge fund investment firms such as Blackrock.

Coal mining is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Miners have died in the mines, suffered debilitating injuries, and nearly all of them will suffer from black lung disease or similar health effects from the inhalation of coal dust.

Why are labor stories ignored by so many media outlets?

‘10 Nabisco plants closed by strike’ read a 1966 New York Times article, which is the first article that comes up in a Google search about the ongoing Nabisco strike in the New York Times because the newspaper of record, along with nearly every major media outlet in the US is ignoring a major labor story.

https://www.nytimes.com/1966/07/12/archives/10-nabisco-plants-closed-by-strike.html

As a reporter this is frustrating and extends to my own personal experience in trying to get editors to accept labor stories, and pushing to have these stories taken seriously in priority while waiting days and days for news about a current labor issue/event I covered to be published.

There are hundreds of workers organizing strikes in unison at one of the largest and widely known snack brands in the US, Nabisco, the maker of Oreos. But you won’t hear about it on cable news outlets or major newspapers.

This has been an issue for years since I’ve been a reporter, such as three years ago when no media outlet was covering thousands of workers at Disney World and Disney Land were fighting for $15 an hour minimum wages as workers at an amusement park branded as a ‘magical’ and ‘happy’ place keep their workers in economic precarity through poverty wages.

It’s an issue for important and huge labor stories going on right now such as 1,000 coal miners in Alabama who have been on strike for over 5 months now, but have also been ignored by most media outlets, including the ones with the largest audiences, reach, and resources.

These trends are publicly detrimental. Stories about workers and the labor movement deserve to receive media coverage and attention.

The public is interested in these stories because it impacts us, individually, as a society, and these stories are fundamentally connected to our own workplaces and the distribution of resources in our world. From immense wealth and income inequality, the correlated drastic decline in union membership over the past few decades, the profiteering of public resources, erosion of social safety nets, and corruption of political systems, the media industry’s overall decision to ignore stories and collective actions of workers only serves to worsen these trends.

Workers are essential to producing the goods and services we consume and rely on, and the lack of transparency and accountability in connecting how a product like Oreos ends up on our shelves and in our homes, because workers produced, packaged, shipped, stocked, and physically sold them, only benefits the powerful at the expense of the vulnerable and marginalized.

Walmart lied about their personal data access to the free phones given to workers

Last month Walmart touted a plan to provide 740,000 employees with free smart phones meant to be used at work, though workers are liable for phone plan costs and replacing it if the phone is lost, stolen, or damaged.

Walmart PR flacks pushed back on privacy concerns brought up in response to Walmart having access to phones thousands of workers will likely use for personal use.

I obtained internal Walmart documents provided to employees as part of Walmart’s Digital Tools Agreement every employee must sign before receiving the company issued phone or using a personal device for the Walmart apps used by employees. 

The documents outline possibilities of an employee receiving “a work-related call, text, email, or other communication on their Device outside of work time,” and encourages workers to only respond if either authorized by or if the communication comes from an authorized manager and to report the time worked or face disciplinary action up to and including termination.

By signing the agreement, an employee acknowledges “usage of all devices is subject to monitoring, collection, retention, imaging, and search as noted below, including any personal content that User may place on device. Walmart may access the device, including remotely through the Security app.”

A Walmart spokesperson told the New York Post and other media outlets last month in regards to the phones, “Walmart will not have access to any personal data,” which was a lie based on the agreement workers must sign.

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