New York, NY – Flight attendants are on the front lines during the coronavirus crisis. LaborPress sat down with Sara Nelson, International President of the Association of Flight Attendants – CWA, AFL-CIO, to learn more about what they are dealing with – and what the union is doing to help.

Association of Flight Attendants President Sara Nelson talks about the challenges facing members during the COVID-19 pandemic.

LP: What are some major challenges facing the union and its members right now, relating to the coronavirus?

SN: First and foremost, since the end of December we have been focused on the limited ability to reduce the risk of the spread of the virus in air travel because of the realities of our work environment. We have advocated for good information – briefings every single day, proper PPE [Personal Protective Equipment], supplementing the ability of flight attendants to get food and stay in hotels in hot spots and then finally new requirements for passengers such as requiring face masks. Also, deep cleaning and food delivery on the plane. Secondly, and overwhelmingly, real concern about jobs and our industry. Demand has dropped off by 95%. It’s unprecedented in our industry. We worked to get a payroll support program in the CARES act – continued paychecks – payment through September 30th. Also, we’ve been advocating to supplement unemployment because not everyone can get it. And some airlines have gone out of business. Some have filed for bankruptcy.

We are continuing to do those going forward. And having flight attendants recognized as essential workers – we are the second most likely profession to have contact with the virus behind health care workers. Right now we are not recognized as essential workers, so are not a priority to get tested. It’s a danger to both us and to the public. All the work Congress is doing  now around essential workers – we are fighting to get included – PPE, testing, hazard pay – and additional benefits determined through legislation. We are required to come to work right now. 

[Another big issue is] it is difficult for us to get food at work. Concessions at airports are shut down, restaurants at hotels are shut down, when we go home to get food it’s hard to get groceries – there are real challenges. 

There is concern about what the future looks like. Members are concerned about the stability of our jobs. We are working round the clock on these issues. 

LP: Do the flight attendants have PPE?

SN: It’s very frustrating. N95 masks are in short [supply], even in hospital and health care facilities. We don’t have N95 masks on board. Airlines are providing surgical masks and requiring everyone wear a mask. 

LP: How many flight attendants have gotten sick or died as a result of the virus?

SN: Seven flight attendants have died; hundreds have tested positive that we can confirm, and that is likely underreported numbers.

LP: What is the union doing to communicate with its workers about the coronavirus crisis?

SN: We have our website – we have absolutely had an exponential increase in website visits. People are looking for the information. We use social media – for example, live Facebook. 2500 turned out for one, then we had 40k views. Also, 20 airlines have locals designated by base [location] and they have phone trees to check in on members. Newsletters are organized by the entire union and locals have their own email newsletter. Flight attendants have their own manuals on their device – phone or tablet. By the nature of our work we are very connected to these mobile devices. Many are moving to Zoom meetings. 

The pandemic is laying bare how important it is to have a union.


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