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Airline workers under 'acute level of stress' amid flight disruptions, union president says

·4 min read
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Airline service workers are demanding better working conditions and pay as a summer travel boom pushes them to the brink.

While airlines ramp operations back up, staffing issues have led to widespread flight cancellations, delays, long lines, and general chaos, particularly in Europe and the U.S.

"Service workers in airports report a very acute level of stress that is due to understaffing and because, understandably, the traveling public is mad about delayed flights and cancellations," Mary Kay Henry, president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) International, told Yahoo Finance Live (video above). “Those are workers who are earning $8 an hour with no benefits and no guaranteed hours and who served us throughout the entire pandemic."

Bagage handler with last minute checked suitcases, Palm Beach Gardens International Airport, Florida. (Photo by: Lindsey Nicholson/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Baggage handler with last-minute checked suitcases, Palm Beach Gardens International Airport, Florida. (Photo by: Lindsey Nicholson/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

SEIU is one of the world's largest labor unions, representing over 1.9 million American workers and 35,000 airport workers who are currently negotiating collective bargaining agreements. These workers' roles range from baggage handlers and janitorial staff to attendants who help elderly and disabled travelers get around the airport.

"Dallas, Charlotte, and Phoenix [are] where we've seen the most worker activity," Henry said. "But service workers in our nation's airports have been demanding unions for the past 20 years in 24 other airports from JFK and LaGuardia, where workers have made wage gains to $19 an hour through their unions, to O'Hare, to San Francisco, LAX, and Seattle."

Pay rates vary widely from airport to airport. Henry noted that "in places where the airlines have recognized unions and have bargained wages, a wheelchair attendant in Chicago is earning $18 an hour this month in July while the same attendant in Dallas is earning $8 an hour."

Passengers wait at Rome's Fiumicino airport during a strike by workers of some airline companies which forcibly cancelled hundreds of flights, in Rome, on July 17, 2022. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP) (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP via Getty Images)
Passengers wait at Rome's Fiumicino airport during a strike by workers of some airline companies which forcibly cancelled hundreds of flights, in Rome, on July 17, 2022. (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP via Getty Images)

In May, the SEIU backed the Good Jobs and Good Airports Act, a bill proposing to set a national wage and standardize benefits that airlines should offer workers. Meanwhile, other airline workers such as pilots and flight attendants have also been agitating for change.

In some cases, COVID-19 delayed new contracts between airlines and essential workers like flight attendants, which have their own unions. Sara Nelson, the president of The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, told Yahoo Finance this added "another stressor" to "a perfect storm" of labor issues.

Airline CEOs 'are to blame'

The summer of 2022 was supposed to be a return to normalcy for airlines and travelers alike as U.S. passenger throughput has almost caught back up to 2019 levels. Yet, the lead-up to the Fourth of July weekend saw over 12,000 flight delays nationwide.

Henry asserted that airlines should be held accountable for the labor shortages that exacerbated disruptions.

"The CEOs of the major airlines American, Delta, and United are to blame," Henry said. "They have to make a decision to not play by the old rules but to recognize the new moment that we're in and to address the worker shortage by investing in living wage jobs where people can join together in unions."

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - MARCH 30: Airport workers participate in a rally organized by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) outside of the Willis Tower headquarters of United Airlines on March 30, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. The rally was held to encourage United Airlines to sign the
Airport workers participate in a rally organized by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) outside of the Willis Tower headquarters of United Airlines on March 30, 2022, in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

"The other thing is CEOs could decide tomorrow to raise wages at the bottom to stabilize service at airports, so action is on the desks of the major airline CEOs," she continued.

Henry noted that they are especially responsible since they "received billions in federal taxpayer throughout the pandemic."

The airline industry received a $54 billion bailout during the coronavirus pandemic to keep the sector afloat after travel nearly ground to a halt. Part of that package will be repaid by airlines.

Meanwhile, major airlines like United (UAL), American (AAL), and Delta (DAL) continue to crawl back to pre-pandemic profit margins. Despite higher fuel costs and operating expenses, Delta still managed to post a $1.4 billion operating profit in the second quarter.

A few airport executives set an example by increasing wages for service workers, but others haven't stepped up to the extent they should, Henry said.

"Some CEOs in individual airports have been willing to take action, like Chicago O'Hare — United was the driver up to the $18 minimum wage," she explained. "But the CEOs have wanted to limit their exposure into individual airports. And that's why the workers' demands have gone national."

Luke is a producer for Yahoo Finance. You can follow him on Twitter @theLukeCM.

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