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.”