United warns thousands of workers they could be furloughed as COVID ravages travel industry

More United Airlines employees may be in danger of being furloughed due to the coronavirus-fueled travel industry downturn after the airline issued 14,000 WARN notices to workers who could be affected.

Employees were notified by email on Jan. 29, advising them of the possible furlough on April 1 when federal payroll support funding runs out, said Robert Einhorn, a United spokesman.

“That does not mean we will furlough 14,000 employees on April 1, we are still working on lowering that number just like we did last year when issued 36,000 WARNs in July, but then furloughed far, far fewer employees in October,” he said.

The 2020 furlough affected more than 16,000 employees nationwide, 3,502 people at Newark Liberty Airport, where United employs 24,000 people in one of its largest hubs.

Passage of a second coronavirus relief act pumped $15 billion into the airline industry and allowed the airline to offer to recall 17,000 of those workers, which includes those who took voluntary furloughs, Einhorn said.

The airline blamed “customer demand that has not changed much since we recalled those employees” furloughed in October, despite the availability of COVID-19 vaccine, in the email to workers.

United isn’t alone. The pandemic has rocked all segments of the travel industry, from airports, where the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey reported traveler volume last year sank to 71 % below record 2019 numbers to other airlines which have had to make similar staff cuts.

Airlines for America, an industry trade association, reported domestic air travel was down 65% and international air travel was off by 74% from pre-pandemic levels, as of Feb. 4.

During the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, metro area airports looked nothing like the busy hubs they were in 2019, despite an uptick in travel.

In both February and March, United expects to fly 49% of its overall schedule compared to February and March of 2019, Einhorn said.

“We have long said recovery will not follow a linear path, however recent positive results in vaccine development and efficacy show an encouraging line of sight to the other side of the pandemic,” he said. “While it will take time for the vaccine to be widely distributed, United’s confidence is even stronger in the recovery and the trajectory of the rebound in 2021 and beyond.”

The notices may be required by the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act or by similar state laws before workforce reductions occur. United said it is working with airline worker unions.

“Receiving a WARN notice does not automatically mean you will be on furlough status after April 1, but it is a sign that we have a reasonable expectation that your job may be affected, the email said.

United officials are looking at cost reductions, and a new Voluntary Separation Leave program to reduce the number of employees ultimately furloughed, the email said.

The airline industry is hoping to receive funding in the current proposed $1.9 trillion federal stimulus package being debated in Congress.

Association of Flight Attendants Union president Sara Nelson testified before Congress on Feb. 4 that an extension of the payroll protection grants would keep employees working through Sept. 30.

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Larry Higgs may be reached at lhiggs@njadvancemedia.com.