Airline workers optimistic as House votes Friday on $58 billion coronavirus relief bill
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Airline workers optimistic as House votes Friday on $58 billion coronavirus relief bill

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Southwest Airlines planes are parked at gates at Midway International Airport Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Chicago. To slow the spread of the coronavirus, several airlines are eliminating or reducing food and drink services.

Southwest Airlines planes are parked at gates at Midway International Airport Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Chicago. To slow the spread of the coronavirus, several airlines are eliminating or reducing food and drink services. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Georgina Felix stayed up until midnight Wednesday, glued to the TV in her Cooper City home, awaiting results of the Senate vote on a $2 trillion relief bill. In it is $58 billion in financial assistance for U.S. airlines gutted by the coronavirus outbreak.

As president of Communications Workers of America Local 3140, she has a vested interest. Her union represents 2,200 American Airlines ticket agents, gate agents and customer service workers worried about losing their jobs.

When she heard senators approved the proposed legislation 96-0, she felt relief and optimism. But, she said, she's "saving the victory dance" until Friday, when the House is expected to pass the measure.

The bill would award passenger airlines up to $25 billion in direct grants to pay employee salaries and benefits through Sept. 30. Cargo carriers would get up to $4 billion; contractors such as caterers and baggage handlers would receive up to $3 billion. The U.S. airline industry employs 750,000 people.

Analysts at investment bank JP Morgan estimate that $6.3 billion will go to American Airlines, the largest carrier at Miami International Airport, which has about 9,000 local employees. Miramar-based Spirit Airlines, which has about 4,000 local employees, would get $440 million.

As a condition of receiving aid, airlines would be forbidden from layoffs or furloughs through the end of September and would accept limits on executive compensation. Airlines who take bailout money are prevented from using it on CEO pay and issuing dividends to shareholders, and are prevented from issuing stock buybacks for at least a year.

"We're very happy that they are keeping us at work and thinking about all the worker bees out there, not just the one-percenters," Felix said. "Our workers are willing to help keep the company afloat during tough times, willing to give up to make sure American Airlines is there when they come back. Now with this bailout, they'll know for a fact that their job is secured. ... A lot of us airline workers are the sole bread winner in our homes."

She relayed the news to her members early Thursday morning, cautioning them that the bill needs to be passed on Friday and signed by the president.

Representatives for other airline workers - including flight attendants and pilots - also applauded the bill.

"This is an unprecedented win for frontline aviation workers and a template all workers can build from," said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendant, via a statement. "The payroll grants we won in this bill will save hundreds of thousands of jobs and will keep working people connected to healthcare many will need during this pandemic."

Captain Joe DePete, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, also issued a statement.

"ALPA pilots applaud the fact that the economic relief package contains provisions to limit furloughs, protect our contracts, and ensure that federal assistance is used to pay airline employees' salaries and benefits, not executive compensation or corporate stock buybacks."

Lawmakers from both parties complained about the money doled out to airlines and other large corporations in the coronavirus relief bill, which was described by multiple lawmakers and aides as more like a disaster relief package as opposed to an economic stimulus bill.

But the U.S. Senate voted to unanimously approve it on Wednesday evening after certain limits were placed on companies that take taxpayer dollars to survive the economic effects of the coronavirus.

"I was very clear about my opposition to bailouts for big corporations," Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott said in a statement after the bill's passage. "While I still fear this bill could be used to provide relief to companies that can afford to take care of their workers without government assistance, I'm glad to see it requires a return on investment for the taxpayers."

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said Republicans and Democrats worked to loosen restrictions on doling out money to individual Americans and small business, while ensuring that money sent to big businesses is spent properly.

Rubio said the bill provides a "buffer" for businesses and, more importantly, the healthcare industry while social distancing measures remain in place.

South Florida Democratic Reps. Ted Deutsch, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Debbie Wasserman Schultz all plan to support the bill in the House of Representatives, though they think more money could be needed in the future.

"It's important to note this is not going to be the last piece of legislation," Wasserman Schultz said.

And liberal Democrats like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who opposed giving money to corporations but supported the bill's other provisions, said they will closely track corporate handouts.

"This bill provides immediate, necessary aid? - but it's insufficient," Warren tweeted. "And I'll do everything I can to hold the Trump administration accountable for how it spends this $450 billion taxpayer fund."

It's not yet clear what will happen to workers who already have been laid off. But Maria Elena Rodriguez, who works in the kitchen for Sky Chefs, the company that caters American Airlines flights, said Thursday that she was hopeful the government bailout would keep her and the airline industry afloat until the virus crisis passes.

"They told me I was losing my job, that they had no solution, and I felt awful," said Rodriguez, who supports her husband, who is disabled. "It is a catastrophe what is happening. The majority of the people who do my job do not make enough to save, so we rely on every paycheck. Hopefully, this law will pass and we can keep our jobs."

Visit Miami Herald at www.miamiherald.com

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