Flight crews say federal wage subsidy unfair to those affected by 737 Max grounding

News from The Star – link to story

By Tess Kalinowski, Wed., April 22, 2020

The Star (c)

Some Air Canada flight attendants say they are being especially hard hit by the economic kickback of COVID-19 because it landed so close to another major airline industry event — the grounding last year of the Boeing 737 Max in March 2019.

The airline took the planes out of service following the Ethiopian Airlines crash that killed 157 passengers, including 18 Canadians. That left the airline with surplus crew. Rather than laying off its workers it offered a voluntary leave in December and January.

But that has impacted the earnings those employees used to calculate the federal wage subsidy that the federal government has negotiated with Air Canada, says the union that represents the flight attendants and service directors.

“If the 737 hadn’t been grounded we wouldn’t have been offering leaves or reduced (work) blocks to the extent we were and those employees would not have been affected going into the pandemic,” said Wesley Lesosky of the Air Canada Component of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).

CUPE says workers who were off for parental, disability and other leaves are also affected. It is calling on the government to encourage Air Canada to negotiate with the union on the issue of wage subsidies.

“The government-funded 75 per cent wage subsidy is presently based on pay received between Jan. 1 and March 15, which will exclude many workers who would otherwise be back at work right now were it not for COVID-19,” Lesosky told the Star.

He said the flight attendants have two options. They can apply for the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) that is administered by Air Canada for the government, or they can apply for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which entitles them to $2,000 a month if they had at least $5,000 in income last year or in the 12 months prior to applying.

Eligibility for CEWS is based on workers’ earnings between Jan. 1 and March 15.

Flight attendants and service directors are paid on the 17th of the month based on the hours worked in the previous month. So if a worker took volunteer leave in December or January, their earnings on Jan. 17 and Feb. 17 would likely be lower than their usual pay. Their next pay day would be March 17 but that falls outside the parameters of the CEWS program.

The union says that effectively shrinks the workers’ eligibility period from 10 weeks to six because any earning after Feb. 17 wouldn’t qualify.

“If you took the leave that was being offered for December and January, you qualify for nothing under CEWS, which is a massive issue. If you took a reduced (work) block for December and January, your income is reduced almost 50 per cent on the CEWS program. That’s a massive issue,” said Lesosky.

The issue stems from the government’s eligibility criteria for the program, which is why CUPE is pushing Ottawa to press Air Canada to top up the 75 per cent wage subsidy.

“I don’t think the employer has any issue paying out money that the government has reimbursed them for but it’s that eligibility criteria that their hands are tied on,” he said.

Lesosky didn’t know how many employees were affected by leaves.

A statement from the union on Friday said, “This policy discriminates against women for becoming mothers, and it discriminates against injured workers for getting hurt on the job, along with those that were assisting the company with mitigations due to the B737 crisis along with many others.”

Air Canada and Rouge employ about 10,000 flight attendants and service directors, of which only about 2,000 are working, said Lesosky.

Asked if the airline was working on a solution for affected workers, an Air Canada spokesperson said he could not provide an update.