Southwest Airlines Co. on Thursday told more than 6,800 employees that their jobs are at risk without concessions from labor unions or more federal aid as the coronavirus pandemic continues to decimate demand for air travel.
The temporary layoffs, if the company goes through with them, would be a first for Southwest, which has never furloughed or laid off employees in its 53-year history. The airline had pledged to avoid those measures this year. But in October the company told unions that the company would need them to agree to the equivalent of a 10% pay reduction to offset overstaffing costs. Without that, the company said, job losses in 2021 would be inevitable.
Russell McCrady, Southwest’s vice president of labor relations, said the notices were necessary as negotiations with unions have stalled, but added that the company would be willing to pick talks up again. “Our absolute goal is to preserve every job at Southwest Airlines,” he said in a statement Thursday.
Leaders of unions that represent Southwest’s pilots and flight attendants said they believed the notices were meant to pressure employees. “We see it as a heartless and cutthroat negotiating tactic,” said Jon Weaks, president of the union that represents Southwest’s pilots.
Rival carriers have furloughed tens of thousands of workers as the industry continues to bleed cash and executives believe it will take years for travel demand to return to the same levels as before the pandemic.