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NJ reps press United Airlines to halt Newark airport layoffs

Date: May 5, 2021

By Daniel Munoz, NJ BIZ

Several members of the state’s congressional delegation are pressing United Airlines to scrap its proposal to let go of more than 1,200 catering staff at Newark Liberty International Airport, despite receiving billions of dollars in COVID-related federal bail-out funds.

The layoffs, should they go into effect, would mean job losses for 2,500 catering workers, and subcontracting out those proposals, according to opponents. In addition to Newark – a hub for United – the move could affect workers at airports in Denver, Houston and Honolulu.

“United should not subcontract these jobs. Many of the United Airlines catering workers have served the airline for decades,” reads an April 7 statement from D. Taylor, president of Unite Here International Union, a hospitality worker’s union organizing against the proposed layoffs.

“This is not what Congress intended when it approved unprecedented support for the airline industry,” he said.

Under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, United got $7.7 billion in federal aid to make up for cratering revenue as the pandemic halted air travel. President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan includes another $15 billion for the pandemic-hit airline industry.

“We did not give this money to the airlines so they can profit or they can give the CEOs bonuses while the people at the bottom get screwed,” said U.S. Rep. Albio Sires, a Democrat, during a May 4 Zoom press conference hosted by Unite Here. “That money was intended to protect the American workers.”

The funds were intended to keep the airlines from laying off their workers amid a global pause in the travel industry, and in exchange they would not lay off or furlough their workers. Going into the pandemic, more than 23,000 people were employed at Newark airport, which generated an estimated $33.6 billion in annual economic activity, according to the airport’s owners the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

United accounted for two-thirds of flights in and out of Newark Airport, and 14,000 workers.

“They can’t just get rid of a thousand people just like that after we gave them billions so many billions of dollars,” Sires added.

He continued that “maybe they should not have got billions,” suggesting that an option on the table would be to claw back some of the funds going toward United.

Airline officials maintained that the plans were nowhere close to final, that they are currently at an exploratory phase, and that no decision has been made with any third party vendor.

“Given the unprecedented impact of COVID-19 on our business, United continues to explore ways to do things differently and become more efficient wherever we can – this [Request for Proposals] is part of that effort,” a spokesperson said in an email.

United officials maintained that should they opt for a third party vendor, they would prioritize existing employees.

“We regularly explore third-party partnerships that have the potential to make us more efficient and improve the experience for our customers,” the spokesperson continued.

A letter addressed to United Chief Executive Officer Scott Kirby, dated May 4, urges the airline giant to halt any proposed layoffs, noting that the federal relief money is meant to go toward preventing the kinds of layoffs being considered.

“Thanks to our support, United Airlines stock prices more than tripled from its pandemic low in March 2020,” added U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, a Democrat, who signed the letter along with Sires. “We did not take this action to increase their stock prices. We took these actions to keep workers on the payroll.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 9:07 a.m. EST on May 5, 2021, to update language to reflect that the potential use of third-party vendors for catering is still a proposal, and not a plan; and to include remarks from United Airlines.

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