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United Airlines furloughs 16,000 workers

Airlines warn employees of possible furloughs
Airlines warn employees of possible furloughs in the thousands 02:03

The pandemic that has killed more than 184,000 Americans continues to wreak havoc on the transportation industry, with United Airlines on Wednesday saying it would furlough as many as 16,370 employees next month. The count is significantly fewer than the 36,000 the carrier had warned could face an unpaid leave of absence due to COVID-19's impact.

The final count may come down further before October 1, when financial aid tied to a ban on furloughs expires. Should Washington approve an additional $25 billion to help airlines cover their payrolls, the furloughs could be delayed, United said.

Flight attendants are taking the greatest hit, with 6,920 receiving furlough notices. But that doesn't tell the full story, according to the union that represents them. All told, more than 15,000 flight attendants will be off United's payroll starting next month if Congress fails to extend financial relief, Association of Flight Attendants-CWA International President Sara Nelson said in an email. 

That's once voluntarily resignations, early retirements and those opting to take time off to spare another's job, are factored in, she said. "The hurt cuts deep and even 'voluntary' options include incredible sacrifice for flight attendants and all the people whose jobs depend on our paychecks too," she wrote.

Like the airlines and other labor unions, Nelson called on Washington to approve financial help to keep aviation workers employed. 

Others facing job losses at United include about 2,850 pilots, 2,010 maintenance workers and 1,400 management and administrative staff.

Spike in cases causing concern for travel industry 01:55

But the number of cuts is 55% fewer than those warned in July. That's because 7,400 employees took buyouts or early retirement, and up to 20,000 more accepted reduced work schedules or took voluntary leaves lasting up to 13 months.

Most union employees in the airline industry whose jobs are cut would have rehiring rights, while managers and administrative staff would not. 

United began the year with 96,000 employees, 84% of whom were represented by unions. The carrier declined to specify how much smaller it would be once the cuts go through.

United's disclosure comes after American Airlines said it expects to furlough or lay off 19,000 workers starting in October, and Delta has warned nearly 2,000 pilots that they could be furloughed.

Even amid a mild comeback since April, U.S. air travel is down about 70% from a year ago, costing the airlines billions in revenue.

The airlines have cut schedules — United's schedule this month is only 37% of what it was a year ago. It's also slashed expenses and borrowed billions to stay afloat.

Southwest Airlines CEO says traffic needs to double to avoid layoffs in 2021 03:08

Josh Earnest, a United senior vice president, said the Chicago-based airline doesn't expect travel to return to normal until a vaccine for COVID-19 is widely available, and that the recovery is likely to be uneven. The airline expects to recall furloughed workers piecemeal, he indicated.

"We don't have to snap everybody back at the same time," he told reporters on Wednesday. "We can basically build our workforce as we need it and as our schedule grows and as demand recovers."

Airlines that accepted federal aid to cover payrolls have been barred from furloughing or laying off workers since March. United took $5 billion in payroll cash and loans. United and other airlines and their unions are lobbying Congress and the White House for another round of payroll support that would run through next March.

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