‘I worry what’s going to happen’: how Covid has made airline work risky and exhausting in the US

‘I worry what’s going to happen’: how Covid has made airline work risky and exhausting in the US

As flight attendants are forced to manage disruptive passengers, other workers in the industry get by with no health insurance or sick leave

Last modified on Thu 16 Sep 2021 11.10 EDT

From mass furloughs, voluntary job losses and retirements, to understaffing problems and a surge in cases of harassment and assaults by unruly passengers, workers at airports and airlines continue to bear the brunt of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the air travel industry.

The sector was among the hardest hit by Covid-19, losing about 100,000 jobs in the first few months of the pandemic. Through three rounds of funding, Congress provided the industry with $54bn in federal assistance to keep workers on payrolls, while surges in the Delta variant have stifled air travel recovery domestically and internationally.

US airlines have differed on whether to implement vaccine mandates for their employees, while passengers are not required to be vaccinated or have a negative Covid test to fly and some airlines did not support extending mask mandates on US domestic flights.

“In my entire career, I have never experienced what we are experiencing right now,” said an American Airlines flight attendant who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, as they are not authorized to speak with the media. “I go to work now and I always worry what’s going to happen, what’s going to trip somebody up, trigger their anger. It’s a whole new ballgame out there right now and it’s a different type of passenger we’re seeing right now.”

They said that flight attendants were constantly dealing with irate passengers who refuse to comply with federal mask mandates for all flights, and would like to see more support from management and paid self-defense training provided to all flight attendants.

While enforcement of Covid safety protections has fallen on flight attendants, workers are still worried about contracting the virus and spreading it to loved ones, and grappling with stressful working conditions and the loss of several co-workers who died of the virus.

So far in 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration has issued more than $1m in fines against unruly airline passengers and received about 3,900 individual reports. A national survey of nearly 5,000 flight attendants released in July 2021 by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO (AFA) found 85% of flight attendants have experienced disorderly passengers in 2021, and one out of five have experienced physical incidents.

Workers in the airline industry are dealing with additional risks associated with Covid-19: a lack of sick leave benefits, widespread understaffing, and enforcing Covid-19 safety protocols.

Delta Air Lines plans to raise health insurance premiums for all unvaccinated employees starting in November 2021 and will require they take weekly Covid tests beginning 12 September. Delta announced the policy was intended to mitigate the financial impact of Covid-19 infections, as the average hospital stay for coronavirus has cost the company $40,000 per person.

A Delta Air Lines ramp agent in the midwest US who requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation said he viewed Delta Air Lines’ decision to raise health insurance premiums for unvaccinated employees as marketing rather than the company’s concern for the health of their workers.

“To this day, the people responsible for cleaning your aircraft before boarding are contract workers who do not receive health insurance. These are the people who can least afford to be sick and are most likely to tough it out and come to work with an illness,” the worker said.

The ramp agent once used accrued sick time to call out of work because they were not feeling well and went to get tested for coronavirus. The managers threatened to start reprimanding employees for calling out of work for double shifts – which are the only type of shifts this worker has.

A Delta Air Lines spokesperson said in an email, “Our leaders are encouraged and empowered to support our people who need time off to get tested and take care of themselves.”

Some airline industry workers are employed by third-party contractors, and have long suffered from low pay and a lack of any benefits or healthcare, problems that have become even more burdensome during the pandemic and as domestic travel recovered through the summer of 2021.

Jane Spurka, a wheelchair attendant for a contractor, Bags Inc, at Orlando international airport in Florida, was furloughed from March to August 2020. Shortly after returning to work, Spurka was injured on the job and had to work through the pain of her injury until her workers’ compensation claim was processed in May 2021. She’s been on light duty since then.

“We are understaffed, overworked and unappreciated,” said Spurka, who makes $7.98 an hour plus tips. “If we are sick, whether it’s just a simple head cold or the flu, we have no choice but to work. There are no paid days. We don’t get any kind of anything from the company.”

She said wheelchair attendants had been so overwhelmed that they hadn’t been able to take breaks, often take on two passengers at once, and are subjected to anger and frustration from airline passengers.

Joseph Gourgue, 62, a gate agent and wheelchair attendant at Orlando international airport, recently contracted Covid and received no pay for the two weeks of work he missed while quarantined. He also spread the virus to his wife. He has pre-existing health conditions and said he would have stayed home from work longer, but could not afford to do so.

“All the company does is make sure you work every day, and make sure you get your job done,” said Gourgue, who gets paid just above the federal minimum wage and relies on tips from passengers. “This is why I’ve been working so hard with my colleagues for two years to unionize. They’re going to have to negotiate, to look into our eyes. I don’t like the idea of workers being taken advantage of, but this is America right now.”

A spokesperson for Bags Inc declined to comment on specific employees, citing company policy, but added in an email, “Generally speaking, employee wages and eligibility for benefits vary depending on the position, responsibilities, experience, location, client, full-time/part-time status and other factors. We value our employees and are committed to providing a safe work environment and following government-mandated regulations where applicable.”

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