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Potential furloughs at Southwest Airlines at Mitchell Airport

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Posted at 5:32 PM, Dec 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-10 22:10:06-05

MILWAUKEE — Southwest Airlines may furlough up to 27 workers at Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport as the company loses billions of dollars in revenue due to a drop in travel amid the pandemic.

In a Dec. 3 WARN letter to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, Southwest's Vice President and Chief People Officer, Julia Weber, wrote that the company may furlough 27 Southwest employees at Mitchell Airport in 2021. Another 117 employees could be impacted if employees from other airports exercise seniority and move to Milwaukee, displacing junior workers, per their union contracts.

The potential furloughs may take place March 15, 2021. Weber expects potential furloughs to last more than six months, "but will be temporary."

"The involuntary furlough will take place next year unless we reach cost-saving agreements with IAM and/or TWU Local 555, the government enacts a satisfactory PSP extension, or there is some other unforeseen event such as a significant increase in revenue," according to Weber.

When the pandemic swept across the U.S. last spring, most Americans halted traveling by air. Southwest and the rest of the passenger airline industry have since been struggling to fill even once-popular flights.

The potential furloughs are part of a nationwide effort to reduce costs at Southwest. Those efforts include "cost-saving" agreements with two unions representing Southwest employees, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, AFL-CIO and the Transport Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO.

Weber writes that Southwest has also reduced annual 2020 cash outlays and spending by about $8 billion and raised cash of about $18.9 billion. But the airline still lost revenue by about 70 percent in the third quarter of this year, Weber argues to the Department of Workforce Development.

Weber says the CARES Act's Payroll Support Program kept the airline afloat, without making any furloughs, through Sept. 30, 2020. The airline also implemented programs that allowed 25 percent of employees to take "voluntary options."

But with Congress in deadlock and future assistance from the federal government uncertain, Southwest decided this month to start reducing expenses by potentially furloughing employees, including at Mitchell Airport.

Correction: This article originally reported that 144 employees of Southwest Airlines were being furloughed come 2021. According to a WARN notice sent to the DWD, 27 employees are being potentially furloughed pending new agreements with unions, and 117 employees may be "impacted" if senior employees from elsewhere in the country replace junior employees in Milwaukee.

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