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The CARES Act is designed to protect workers – we must ensure it stays that way

By Larry I. Willis

When United Airlines accepted $5 billion in taxpayer-funded financial relief through the CARES Act, the carrier did so on the condition that its frontline workers be kept on payroll — with existing benefits — through September 2020.

That was by design. By stipulating that CARES Act funds make it into the hands of working people, the lawmakers who crafted the legislation sought to stabilize critical industries while also protecting the frontline workers who will get our economy back up and running once the Coronavirus crisis is over.

That’s why, when United announced it would force part-time status on full-time fleet and passenger service workers, the labor movement vigorously fought back. The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace workers (IAM), the union that represents these workers, filed a lawsuit against United, and thousands of card-carrying union members from across the industry called their elected representatives in Congress.

These efforts paid off. United has reconsidered its position, and now says full-time workers can elect to become part time. Those who do so will not lose their full-time status, and any full-time employees who do not agree to a reduction in hours will remain full time.

While this is a win for working families everywhere, frontline aviation workers are not out of the woods yet. United executives say they plan to review the situation later this summer and may reconsider once again forcing part-time status on full-time workers.

This is especially troubling when one considers the precedent it could set. If United’s plan is allowed to stand, it opens the door for other carriers to also ignore the letter of the law and impose unilateral changes that hurt working families.

The fact of the matter is, there shouldn’t be any review of this program, and it shouldn’t have taken the threat of legal action or a coordinated effort by thousands of union members to get United Airlines to obey the law. Any decision by any air carrier that results in reduced wages and benefits of frontline workers, and is made without workers’ input or over workers’ objections, violates the CARES Act and flies in the face of Congressional intent.

Because employee benefits are directly tied to hours worked, a reduction in working hours also means reduced retirement contributions, sick leave, occupational injury benefits, and more. Instead of unilaterally imposing these kinds of changes on employees, air carriers need to be willing to negotiate reductions with workers and their union representatives.

While we are pleased United Airlines reversed course, we aren’t turning a blind eye to this issue. Transportation labor stands with our brothers and sisters across the aviation industry. We will fight to ensure public aid reaches those who it was intended for, and those who need it most: the dedicated frontline employees who have made this industry the best in the world, and who will see us through this crisis.

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