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Contract workers seek aid as Senate introduces $58 billion airline bailout package

Joseph Palma, a subcontracted customs worker for American Airlines who was laid off this week, is paying close attention as members of Congress mull over a proposed $58 billion bailout package to help the airline industry recover revenue lost during the coronavirus crisis.

Thousands of South Florida workers in the aviation industry have been struggling to figure out how to survive as the pandemic dries up all demand for travel. Airlines are canceling tens of thousands of flights and parking thousands of planes.

Palma, a 41-year-old Hialeah resident, took the bus to work Wednesday armed with masks he bought at CVS, and before long was back on the bus heading home to his apartment, one of dozens of workers laid off that day.

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“I didn’t get to clock in. They said, `You have to return your badge,’” Palma said. “I’ve been working at the airport for weeks during this pandemic, risking my life and health to make sure that passengers get to where they need to go. Without us, the airlines couldn’t function and their profits wouldn’t be possible. There should be no bailout if contracted airport workers like myself are left out in the cold.”

The bailout package that the Senate introduced this week calls for $25 billion in cash grants, $25 billion in unsecured loans for passenger airlines and $8 billion for cargo carriers, while leaving out their contracted workers.

The crisis affects airline giants like American Airlines — which grounded 450 planes, canceled 55,000 flights and offered unpaid leaves and early retirement to employees — and smaller regional airlines such as Fort Lauderdale-based Silver Airways, which employs about 1,000 and flies a fleet of 30 turbo-prop planes in Florida and the Caribbean.

Those and other airlines are served by tens of thousands of wheelchair attendants, baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, security agents and others who are employed by contractors. They are demanding that they be given relief too.

Palma said he is having trouble navigating Florida’s unemployment program, so he can’t count on any cash from the state anytime soon. And with no more paychecks from his $17.06-an-hour job, he has nothing to rely on but his dwindling savings and a week’s worth of food to keep him afloat.

“I have to pay my rent, I have to pay my water, I have to pay my electricity...I live check by check,” he said. There’s no way… they say don’t go outside. You can’t go look for jobs. I don’t know what to do.”

Palma’s employer, Eulen America has laid off about 180 workers, said Ana Tinsly, a representative of a local SEIU chapter that represents airport workers.

“Contracted airline workers are the backbone of the airline industry,” said Helene O’Brien, Florida Director for 32BJ SEIU (Service Employees International Union). “They care for our elderly and disabled loved ones, they move our baggage, they clean planes from national and international destinations, and they interact with hundreds of thousands of passengers from around the world. They are among the most at risk in the face of this global pandemic, and they are also the least able to go without pay and benefits during this time of crisis.”

Earlier this week, Airlines for America and a coalition of aviation unions wrote a joint letter urging lawmakers to provide federal aid to their industry.

“The current economic environment is simply not sustainable,” said the letter. “The survival of our industry depends on it.”

In a letter submitted to U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., and Broward Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., Silver CEO Steve Rossum wrote “direct assistance is both respectfully requested and required” in order to survive “the most dire crisis the industry has ever faced.”

Silver management said it is in discussions with its two union leaderships to mitigate layoffs and furloughs as much as possible, including offering leaves of absence and other options. It is adjusting its flight schedule and expects a 30 percent reduction in flying in April. Silver has also temporarily suspended delivery of new aircraft.

“Our passenger bookings have dropped dramatically over the past month and we are experiencing an even greater and unprecedented decline in forward bookings each day and ever-increasing cancellations as citizens and visitors are encouraged not to travel,” Rossum wrote.

Another local airline adjusting in the wake of the coronavirus is Spirit Airways, a Miramar-based carrier that operates 85 flights per day at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. It is the seventh-largest commercial airline in the United States and flies throughout the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean.

The company has a fleet of 150 planes (AirbusA320 Family) and employs approximately 8,900 people worldwide and 6,500 in the state of Florida.

Spirit is making changes to its April and May schedules due to the lower demand, according to the airline. It is temporarily suspending some markets and reducing service in others on off-peak days. A drop of about 20 percent capacity is expected in April and a 25 percent reduction in May.

Hiring at Spirit has been paused for all non-operational Support Center positions, but there have not been any layoffs.

This story was originally published March 20, 2020 6:25 PM.

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