What About the Airlines' Workers?

Lawmakers were quick to ease U.S. carriers, but nothing has been done to ease the plight of laid-off employees -- yet

In mid-September, Congress overwhelmingly approved a $15 billion package of loan guarantees and cash to revive an airline industry that has swooned since the September 11 terrorist assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Missing from the legislation, however, was any relief for another group reeling from the attack on America: the 100,000 or so airline employees who may lose their jobs because of the slowdown in the travel business.

Now, efforts are belatedly heating up on Capitol Hill to offer these workers assistance, in the form of extended unemployment insurance payments and other benefits. Approval seems to depend on whether conservative Republicans will agree with Democrats that airline employees need a bailout as much as their companies do.

Certainly, airline workers are stung by their omission so far from Congress's largesse to the air carriers. "For a lot of workers, it was the equivalent of saving the ship and leaving the crew adrift," says Frank Larkin, spokesman for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents about 100,000 mechanics, reservation agents, baggage handlers, and other airline employees. Add to that the shock and grief generated by the attacks -- the Association of Flight Attendants lost 12 of its members in the hijackings -- and the debate could get quite emotional.


  Based on news accounts and the union's knowledge of company plans, the AFL-CIO estimates that about 107,000 airline employees stand to suffer at least a temporary job loss because of the terrorist attacks. Some workers have opted for unpaid leaves or other incentives, but most are likely to be put on furlough, says Richard Bank, director of the AFL-CIO's Center for Collective Bargaining. The worry of many employees is that at least some jobs might disappear for good, he adds.

Legislation introduced by Senator Jean Carnahan (D-Mo.) seeks to cushion the blow by lengthening the period during which laid-off airline workers and others, such as airport employees, would be eligible to collect unemployment insurance. The limit, now 26 weeks, would grow to 18 months.

The bill also would offer unemployment insurance to those otherwise ineligible for the benefit, such as recent hires. It would make retraining benefits available and offer assistance for continuing health-insurance coverage. The cost: about $3.1 billion. A similar bill is pending in the House.


  Congressional opponents, chiefly conservative Republicans, have voiced several objections. One, says a spokesman for House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Tex.), is that a strong safety net is already in place for the unemployed -- namely, the existing unemployment insurance program and the COBRA health insurance regulations. Another is the belief that the chief aim of federal assistance should be to stimulate the industry into recovery.

Armey's efforts "are focused on getting the airline industry back on its feet and [thus] getting these people back on the job," says a spokesman, Greg Crist. "An expanded unemployment insurance benefit won't do anything to get you back on the job." He adds, however, that Armey is "not necessarily opposed" to relief legislation for airline workers.

Another concern is where to draw the line -- and not only politicians are worried about that. "If you give relief to airline workers, what about all the others" who have lost jobs because of the terrorist attacks, asks Daniel Diamond, a professor of economics at New York University's Stern School of Business. "The tourist industry is in shambles. There are lots of spread-out effects, and those workers aren't getting special compensation."


  Others argue, however, that while many industrial sectors may be staggering from the terrorist attacks, the airline industry's woes could prove more enduring. Therefore, they say, it makes sense to offer immediate and long-term relief to airline workers. They add that there seems to be a striking imbalance in offering huge sums of money to bail out an industry but none to workers.

"My concern is fairness," says Richard Hurd, professor of labor studies at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. "Why do you want to spend $15 billion on the companies without any consideration for employees?"

Urged on by airline unions, Democrats in Congress pushed to have relief language included in the airline-bailout package. But they removed the thorny issue from the table, recognizing that it had the potential to hold up legislation that could keep a crucial industry afloat, congressional aides say.


  Now, it's back on the agenda. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) is pushing to have airline worker relief legislation acted on quickly, most likely as part of airline security legislation under consideration in Congress, a spokeswoman says.

Daschle and other Democrats who favor quick assistance for airline employees are getting help from across the aisle. In the House, the Displaced Workers Relief Act has been introduced by Representatives Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) and Melissa Hart (R-Pa.). (In a news conference Oct. 4, Daschle said relief for nonairline workers could be taken up as part of an economic stimulus package the White House is eager to move on. President Bush has said this measure should include not only tax cuts and business breaks, but "a displaced workers package.")

This may be a case, Hurd says, where the moderate wing of the GOP determines the outcome of the battle. And if the airline workers' measure passes, it could prove difficult for Bush to veto it, his party's presumed antipathy to organized labor notwithstanding. After all, what politician of any stripe wants to look indifferent to the plight of working people in the aftermath of a massacre?

By Pam Mendels in New York

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