Flight attendants turn to dog walking, contact tracing for extra income as they brace for job cuts

Flight attendants turn to dog walking, contact tracing for extra income as they brace for job cuts

August 16, 2020
  • Airlines are prohibited from laying off workers through Sept. 30 under the terms of federal aid.
  • Political support for another round of payroll support has grown but Congress hasn't yet approved a new coronavirus relief package.
  • Flight attendants are the biggest work group at most airlines.

The coronavirus pandemic has been so devastating to the airline industry that even flight attendants with decades of experience have been told that their jobs are at risk.

Jennifer Ritter is one of them.

"I can't see myself doing anything else," said Ritter, 50, who joined United Airlines as a flight attendant in 1998. Ritter, who is also an officer at the United chapter of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA labor union, has endured industry traumas including the 9/11 attacks, bankruptcy, the financial crisis and a merger.

Then based in Boston, Ritter said she thought at the time that the Sept. 11 attacks were "probably the worst thing that could ever happen to the industry."

Flights were called off for three days, airlines quickly furloughed thousands of employees and struggled through years of bankruptcies and a wave of mergers that consolidated the U.S. industry.

Executives have said the pandemic's impact on demand has been more severe than anything they've ever seen.

Chicago-based United last month warned 36,000 employees, including Ritter, about potential furloughs this fall. Flight attendants, generally the largest of airlines' work groups, are bearing the brunt: more than 15,000 — 60% of United's cabin crew members — were told they could be furloughed. American Airlines said it could cut as many as 25,000 jobs, including 9,950 flight attendants or 37% of the group employed by the Fort Worth, Texas-based airline. Concessions and voluntary measures like buyouts are helping offset some of the furloughs, airlines have said.

Carriers have shrunk to better match weak demand, operating at a fraction of their normal capacity to cut costs, which requires fewer employees.

Immediate job cuts were avoided because the terms of $25 billion in federal payroll support prohibit layoffs until Oct. 1. The Association of Flight Attendants and other labor unions have been urging lawmakers to extend that aid to preserve jobs through the end of next March. Airline CEOs including those at United, American and Southwest have thrown their support behind the initiative, speaking recently with lawmakers about it.

Political support has grown to extend that aid, but talks in Washington for a national coronavirus relief package have failed to yield a deal.

One San Francisco-based flight attendant said he prefers that there isn't additional airline aid to avoid the the uncertainty.

"We all need to know what we are doing next," said the flight attendant, who declined to give his name because he was worried about jeopardizing his job and is currently looking for administrative work in the technology sector.

Some flight attendants are seeking out support from union counselors and coworkers.

"Everyone is on pins and needles," said Heather Healy, the two-decade director of the employee assistance program at the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents cabin crews at airlines including United, Spirit and Alaska. Pilot unions have similar programs, such as Project Wingman at the at the Allied Pilots Association, which represents American Airlines' roughly 15,000 aviators.

The AFA program has been so inundated with calls from flight attendants worried about the health crisis and job security that it has started group support sessions to accommodate everyone.

Stress for flight attendants has accumulated from issues like evolving safety standards for passengers and crew and flying in and out of cities with differing restrictions to manage Covid-19.

"They've had to be flexible and pretty adaptive. Now we come to one [issue for which] there are no guidelines from CDC and that's the economic impact of Covid," Healy said.

Flight attendants have unique jobs and those still employed but not flying often, if at all, can face social isolation, a jarring change for people in a career that usually involves constant interaction with others, Healy added. And for those on the job market, flight attendants' skills for managing people might not be in demand at a time when companies have increased physical distancing.

Airline leaders have urged employees to take unpaid or partially-paid leaves of absence, early retirement, buyouts that include extended medical benefits and cash severance, and other options to help minimize forced cuts. Thousands took them up on the offers. At Southwest Airlines, close to 30% of the Dallas-based airline's staff volunteered, and CEO Gary Kelly said the airline doesn't expect to have to pursue involuntary cuts this year.

Airlines furlough the most junior employees first but these potential cuts were so deep that United flight attendants would have had to start before November 1996 to be secure, according to a staff memo earlier this summer. But United had enough flight attendants sign up for voluntary furloughs, the union said late Friday, so that cutoff is now cabin crew members that began in 1999, meaning Ritter is safe from an involuntary furlough in October.

But the job will be different. Those coveted trips to Tokyo, Frankfurt and dozens of other cities around the world are in doubt. International travel, a pillar of big airlines like United, has been sharply reduced and could to take longer to rebound than shorter U.S. domestic trips, partly due to a host of travel restrictions.

American Airlines told flight attendants last month — as it urged them to take voluntary leaves or early retirement — to expect more domestic trips since "international flying will be down significantly through at least end of 2021." Staffing will also be reduced for international and cross-country flights. 

"While you are considering the details of these [voluntary leave and retirement] programs, I also want to make sure you fully understand the new reality of what your schedule and flying may look like," wrote Jill Surdek, American's senior vice president of flight service to flight attendants on July 24. "The reality is our business is going to change, moving forward and for the long-term."

United's Ritter has applied for a company program that would allow her to keep her job if she shares her schedule with another flight attendant.

She said she would hate to lose the job that sent her repeatedly to Germany, where she was a student and later played the part of tour guide for some of the younger flight attendants during layovers, but she has explored alternatives this summer.

"I'm actually in the process of applying with New York state to be a contract tracer" for Covid-19, she said. Flight attendants are "very used to talking to people and deescalating and figuring things out. I'm also a numbers person."

In the meantime, she's is doing her own cost-cutting.

"We're cutting our expenses where we can," said Ritter. She and her husband, an American Airlines pilot, who is safe from furlough risk, have canceled their cable service and are eschewing restaurants and trips this summer.

"We're hunkered down," said Ritter, who is Newark-based but lives with her husband and two elementary school-aged children in Poughkeepsie, New York. She is considering lowering contributions to her retirement fund.

It's a difficult situation for many as unemployment remains high, raising competition for jobs. The industry is reeling across the board so the chances of scoring a position at another carrier are slim.

Pay varies widely for flight attendants. A 22-year flight attendant on reserve duty, for 78 hours a month, is paid a gross of $5,093 at United, while gross monthly pay for a flight attendant with five years of experience at the carrier is $2,925, according to the union. Pay can climb if they pick up additional flights, speak multiple languages and receive per diem allowances.

Susannah Carr, another Newark-based United flight attendant who joined the airline in 2015, said she reactivated her account on the app Wag to make extra money walking dogs when she wasn't flying this spring.

"Rent in so many places that we have bases is extremely high and it's high during the best of times," said Carr, 29. "Losing your job, it's astronomical."

"It pretty much eats up my whole first paycheck," Carr said of her $1,500 share of the rent for the apartment she shares with another flight attendant near her Newark base.

Carr, who worked as a nanny during college and says her monthly student loan payments are manageable, previously worked as a wedding planner and an account manager for a translation company.

She's now circulating her resume on job sites.

"Obviously there's a lot of people out there looking for jobs and there could be a lot more in the near future," she said. "I certainly realize that I may not necessarily get the job I want right now. I'm going to get the job that I need right now."

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