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Let's Talk About our Contract

Date: January 15, 2021

Section 18 of our Contract addresses Reduction in Personnel.  You may not know the section of the Contract, but by now you’re more familiar than you’d like to be with the process.  As a quick review, prior to the company implementing any involuntary furlough, they must first offer and award in system seniority order a number of furlough mitigation programs that start with Voluntary Furlough (VF).  The negotiated provisions the come with a Voluntary Furlough can be found on page 171 of the printed Contract.  These provisions are set forth to offer protections to those who volunteer and include who is eligible, seniority protection, health, wellness and travel benefits, early recall protections, base protections, etc. 

Before implementing an involuntary furlough, a requirement for Furlough Mitigation Partnerships (FMP) to be awarded was negotiated as a mandatory part of the process in Section 16.A.2.c. (pg 158).  In the event these voluntary programs do not provide the company with the reduction in personnel they have determined to be necessary, involuntary furlough will result.

In advance of the involuntary furlough that took place last October, in response to the circumstances brought about by the worldwide pandemic, we simultaneously worked together in extraordinary ways to persuade members of the United States Congress to extend the CARES Act. 

AFA worked other avenues in an effort to find ways to reduce the number of Flight Attendants affected by an impending involuntary furlough.   Saving jobs while keeping people connected to their company, benefits and base became a priority.  With the unanimous approval of the United Master Executive Council, the Involuntary Furlough Mitigation Program (IVFMP) resulted. 

This program introduced an additional, extra-Contractual step designed for the exclusive purpose of further mitigating the number of people who would end up without a job and health & wellness benefits, for themselves and their families, in response to an ever-worsening series of pandemic events.  The program was never negotiated, nor was it intended to, introduce an additional scheduling option.

It is important to point out, the provisions of the IVFMP Letter of Agreement did not supersede the negotiated provisions of the Contract. They supplemented the negotiated voluntary processes in order to reduce involuntary furlough when it became clear to the Union leadership that something more had to be done to protect as many of our Members as possible during a pandemic.

And, as difficult as it may be for all of us to accept, we may collectively find ourselves faced with a similar situation in the near future should additional payroll support from the U.S. Congress not materialize.  Looking back and understanding history provides valuable perspective on the choices available during the worsening pandemic.  Consider:

  1.  The company insisted any LOA had to be “cost-neutral” given it was being negotiated for implementation only if the CARES Act was not extended and as an alternative to the only remaining option at that time; involuntary furlough.  Involuntary furlough has costs built in to protect employees in terms of furlough pay and benefits for a limited time, those costs are eliminated in a short period of time.
  2. As is the case in bargaining, there is a cost associated with any “options” explored during the process and it becomes a matter of comparing these different costs when the resulting program requires cost neutrality in an environment of limited resources.
  3. There is a cost associated with each of the furlough mitigation options in the Contract and those priorities were established at the time they were negotiated into the book.  Different costs to the company, per Flight Attendant, apply for:

    • Voluntary Furlough
    • Furlough Mitigation Partnerships
    • Involuntary Furlough
  4.  In order to accomplish the cost-neutrality established by management as a condition of bargaining, a sufficient number of voluntary furlough awards providing the company with extended time off the payroll, were necessary as part of the negotiated furlough mitigation program in the book.  The IVFMP was not negotiated as a replacement or “alternative” to Voluntary Furlough.  It was negotiated as an additional program, available only to those subject to involuntary furlough.  In point of fact, without a voluntary furlough program, the IVFMP would not have been achieved.
  5. The Union, in discussion with management right up until the very last-minute, continued to explore options, in an ongoing effort to improve any agreement terms and to sweep into any resulting program as many members as possible.

The leadership of the Union has heard, loud and clear, and understands the frustration that resulted from the timing of the announcement of the IVFMP, as well as from the confusion about the new program which was negotiated during a very condensed time period. 

The unanimous decision by the United Master Executive Council to accept the terms of the IVFMP LOA was made after much deliberation.  Entering into this kind of agreement was not taken lightly and was one choice among a number of bad options available, all resulting from a world-wide pandemic that was out of anyone’s control.

The initial reduction in force notice advised an incredulous 15,100 of our flying partners that were subject to involuntary furlough. Through the voluntary separation programs offered by management (VSP), as well as the closure of three of our international bases, Voluntary Furlough and the Furlough Mitigation Partnerships, that number was reduced.  Yet 12,000 of us still faced the prospect of being without a job and health care during a pandemic.  Given that reality, the IVFMP was the result.  It was the mechanism through which we ultimately kept 6,500 Flight Attendants connected to their company, benefits and base.

It cannot go unnoticed that those who participated in the IVFMP, agreed to forego their Contractual involuntary furlough pay of several months in exchange for access to their health & wellness benefits.  In combination with the number of Flight Attendants “above the line” taking time away from their job through voluntary furlough, those who left the job permanently through the VSP and the international base closures and those who were subject to involuntary furlough agreeing to participate in the IVFMP, the company ultimately achieved the desired cost neutrality necessary to keep 6,500 with benefits.

So, you might ask legitimately, if the IVFMP was such a good idea, why isn’t it already part of the Contract?  The answer to that question, from a collective bargaining perspective, is that it is not a good long-term solution.  As with applying a tourniquet to a leg that has suffered massive injury, you can’t keep the tourniquet on forever.  Similarly, while the IVFMP was meant to arrest the free-fall of 12,000+ Flight Attendants into unemployment and a loss of benefits for, what was, an unknown period of time, it simply can’t be seen as a viable long-term solution.

Recognizing the IVFMP was a program that is not part of our Contract for a reason, and identifying that it’s not a good long-term solution, it’s a fair to ask why we would do it and if we should consider it again if faced with another reduction in force of significant magnitude.

When we consider that a reduction in force of any size starts affecting those of us who have been here for more than two decades, we must also acknowledge, we have perspective.  Many of us have been through furloughs in the past and over the course of our careers.  And, while we’ve “done our time,” we have the perspective that no accommodations similar to these have been made in the past.   For some of us, our furlough periods came during a period of time in a changing industry where they lasted in excess of three years.  So, you may ask, what makes this reduction in force different?  Consider:

  1.  Never in our history have we been faced with a reduction in force of this magnitude.
  2. We remain in the midst of an arguably worsening pandemic, the likes of which not having healthcare make an enormous difference.
  3. There are very few “other jobs” to find because of the pandemic to bridge the gap between IVF and return to work.  Bars, restaurants and other avenues of short-term or supplemental employment are all but absent right now, which can leave a dependence on expiring unemployment like nothing any of us has ever experienced.

The lessons learned up until this point in history are important ones.  It is within this context, we must consider our collective future.  If United announces another reduction in force, which is likely, and if those numbers are again staggeringly high, we should expect to be faced with having to make similar choices.

Despite our increasingly optimistic view of the future with the introduction of the vaccines, we cannot delude ourselves into thinking that everything is better. We are only at the start of the recovery process. 

At the same time, we should be clear.  Within the context of our Union, and in caring for each other, the involuntary furlough of one Flight Attendant is one too many.  Our obligation as a Union is to work together to reduce and eliminate the need for involuntary furlough in any way we can.  

Having the benefit of hindsight, we must also look at what we collectively accomplished:

  •  In the absence of the IVFMP more than 12,000 Flight Attendants would have been placed on IVF.
  • Through the IVFMP, 6,500 Flight Attendants remained connected to their company, benefits and base with a limited income potential.

We can discuss options, provide input, and voice concerns. That’s the process.  We can even realistically acknowledge the legitimate differences in opinion among our almost 24,000 flying partners will make it difficult, if not impossible, to get everyone on the same page.  At the end of the day, we have a decision to make.  Working together through our democratic process and benefiting from our collective wisdom of past events, we will make a decision that leads to the best possible outcome.

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