Roughly 2,000 United Airlines food service workers are worried they might be laid off before the end of the year, despite the airline receiving billions in Covid relief funds and agreeing to pay millions in bonuses to its top executives.
An estimated 900 United catering workers and their supporters staged protests against the airline on Wednesday.
The demonstrations outside airports in Denver, Houston, Honolulu and Newark, New Jersey, came nearly three months after United’s vice president of customer strategy and innovation, Mandeep Grewal, sent a letter to the catering staff informing them that the airline was “exploring the option of having a third-party come in and run our current in-house kitchen operations.”
The letter, which has been provided to CNN Business by the union UNITE HERE, said United would likely be evaluating potential vendors for “several months” until the third quarter of 2021.
“I know this may cause concern for those who have roles within our kitchens and menu design teams and I want to assure you that the wellness of our employees and the impact to our customers will all be taken into consideration,” Grewal wrote. “We will consider a variety of providers, including those that we work with today,” she added.
Leaders of UNITE HERE — the North American airport and hospitality workers union that has represented United’s catering staffers since 2019 — reached out to members of Congress after the letter was received.
US Congresswomen Sylvia R. Garcia and Eleanor Holmes Norton sent a letter to United CEO Scott Kirby on Wednesday criticizing the company for taking federal money to pay employees during the worst of the pandemic only to consider laying them off a year later. Congress has given United $7.7 billion in Covid relief since the pandemic began, according to the airline’s SEC filings.
“For United to plan to outsource thousands of jobs when the industry is already projecting financial recovery is acting in bad faith,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter, which was provided by UNITE HERE.
The congresswomen also sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, according to UNITE HERE, urging her to consider a “clawback” of the pandemic relief funds sent to United if the company does eventually lay off its catering staff.
“In the CARES Act, Congress gave the Treasury Secretary discretion to determine the ‘appropriate’ ‘terms and conditions’ of the payroll assistance,” the congresswomen wrote in their letter to Yellen. “To implement this program as Congress intended, we urge you to exercise your discretion.”
United’s latest 10-K annual report filed on March 1 revealed the airline has agreed to pay its CFO Gerry Laderman, president Brett J. Hart and CEO Kirby an estimated total of $7.5 million in long-term contingent cash bonuses designed to keep the executives from leaving the company. United points out its CEO and president did not receive a salary for most of 2020 in consideration of the company’s pandemic woes.
“The long-term cash awards, which will not be paid until at least 2024, do not have one single cent from the CARES Act,” a United spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
But United workers still take issue with the airline’s leaders getting bonuses while contemplating layoffs for some or all of the company’s catering staffers. UNITE HERE said people of color, women and immigrants make up more than half of its members.
“United has made a decision that could put thousands of workers out on the street,” said Willy Gonzalez, secretary treasurer for UNITE HERE Local 23 in Houston.
Fernando Herrera was one of an estimated 20 United catering workers marching with picket signs outside George Bush Intercontinental Airport terminal on Wednesday. The Colombian immigrant and married father of one, who said he has been with United for 20 years, said he’s tired of the the company keeping workers in the dark about their futures after weeks without an update.
“United hasn’t really informed us about anything,” Herrera said, speaking through a Spanish translator. “It’s an injustice. It’s not fair that United even [after] getting the money from the government, is considering laying people off. That’s all me and my coworkers think about.”
A United spokesperson emphasized that the company has not made a decision about its catering services.
“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,” the company said. “We regularly explore third-party partnerships that have the potential to make us more efficient and improve the experience for our customers.”
United transportation coordinator Jenkins Kolongbo, 37, a Liberian immigrant who demonstrated outside Newark International Airport on Wednesday, said he thinks the company is taking advantage of the fact its staff has not finalized its union deal. UNITE HERE said catering workers have been working without a contract for at least two years.
“The most important thing is the security of our job,” Kolongbo said. “We don’t know if tomorrow we’re going to be able to have a job. People who’ve been here 15-20 years, they don’t know.”