United Airlines warns 36,000 employees could face furloughs

United Airlines warns 36,000 employees could face furloughs
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United Airlines warned Wednesday that as many as 36,000 employees could face furloughs on Oct. 1 due to decreased business caused by the coronavirus pandemic. 

“The reality is that United simply cannot continue at our current payroll level past October 1 in an environment where travel demand is so depressed,” the airline said in a memo to employees obtained by The Hill. “And involuntary furloughs come as a last resort, after months of company-wide cost-cutting and capital-raising.”

The furloughs, which would be the largest cuts by a U.S. airline during the pandemic, would reduce the United Airlines workforce by more than one-third.

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Of the 36,000 United employees who could be furloughed, about 15,000 are flight attendants, 11,000 are customer service or gate agents, and 2,250 are pilots. 

Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, called the potential furloughs a “gut punch.”

“But they are also the most honest assessment we've seen on the state of the industry,” she said in a statement.

The flight attendants union and other labor unions are calling on Congress to provide another $25 billion to protect airline jobs through March, but officials said this was unlikely.

United Airlines signed a letter of intent to receive about $4.5 billion through the CARES Act this week, The Washington Post reported, which requires the company to keep front-line workers on the job through Sept. 30. But officials say they don’t expect the travel industry to rebound by then, potentially forcing the company to let employees go.

Federal law mandates that companies with 100 or more employees provide a 60-day notice ahead of mass layoffs or location closings. Furloughed employees may end up being recalled when more people resume traveling. 

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United has already cut capital spending and persuaded thousands of employees to take unpaid leave, but officials say it is still losing $40 million a day. 

United officials said in the memo that the employees would be notified directly or through a union representative of their potential furlough in the fall. Officials said that not all employees who receive notices will necessarily be laid off, as the company expects the numbers to be affected by increased participation in voluntary separation programs, like early retirement.

Travel has been dramatically reduced during the pandemic after nations instituted travel bans to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Now, states such as New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are requiring all people from states where cases are rising to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.