February 5, 2021 By Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press
At least 110 WestJet employees in the province will be laid off next week, when the airline officially outsources its customer service operations in both Winnipeg and Brandon.
In the summertime, the Calgary-based company announced a slew of organizational changes to ensure its “competitive future” after the COVID-19 pandemic. Among them was a decision to begin contracting out airport operations in all domestic airports except for Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Toronto.
WestJet has hired Airport Terminal Services, a third-party provider, to staff customer service and ground-handling operations in Winnipeg.
The airline indicated it would seek out preferential employment opportunities for as many of the employees who lost their jobs in the internal adjustments _ upwards of 3,300 in Canada _ as possible.
Now, the union that represents Winnipeg employees says longtime staffers are being offered their same jobs with significant drops in pay _ in some instances, a $10 per hour decrease.
“People who’ve been working there for 15, 16, 17 years are getting offers of jobs (at Airport Terminal Services) for $13 an hour,” said Chris MacDonald, assistant to the national president of Unifor, which had been organizing WestJet employees in Manitoba to officially form a local union, at the time the pandemic was declared.
“This is a huge problem and it’s clearly a permanent solution to a temporary problem that is clearly about them shedding their labour costs (amid the pandemic).”
It’s unclear exactly how many Manitoba WestJet workers have lost their jobs since they are not unionized and thus, not all card-carrying members, MacDonald said.
He said it is, unfortunately, an ironic situation, given WestJet has always prided itself on the fact its employees are proud to work for the airline. Few employees feel proud at present, MacDonald said, adding the company is turning its back on skilled staff who have years of experience checking in travellers, tagging bags, and other related duties.
He criticized the airline for not making temporary changes to weather the storm instead.
In its June 24 news release, which initially outlined the permanent layoffs, WestJet indicated its scheduled operations had been reduced by more than 90 per cent.
The release states the company has implemented cost-cutting measures, including a hiring freeze, halting non-essential training, releasing outside contractors, cutting executive salaries, and pausing upwards of three-quarters of its capital projects.
Morgan Bell, spokeswoman for WestJet, said in a statement Wednesday there are no additional changes planned for Manitoba at this time.
Bell added Airport Terminal Services has been a partner with the “broader WestJet network” for 20 years.
“They have supported us in both our U.S. and Canadian operations in more than 19 locations and have proven their ability to deliver solid results in airports of all sizes,” she wrote.
At the end of 2020, traffic at Winnipeg’s airport was down 97 per cent.