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Who’s Next? JetBlue Cuts An Entire Employee Group

May 5, 2021

JetBlue announced plans to eliminate all Lead Crewmember jobs from Airport Ground Operations at the airline. The changes are scheduled to take effect this holiday season, on New Year’s Day.

“Lead” agents at airlines are non-management workers who oversee the handling of planes on the tarmac and while parked at airport gates for fueling, servicing, and loading and unloading of passengers and cargo. Lead Agent responsibilities include ensuring planes are loaded and balanced safely, conducting inspections of the aircraft, and pushing planes back from the gates when ready for departure, among other duties. 

Other Lead Agents work as coordinators or trainers in various areas of the airport operation. All major airlines have a version of Lead Agents working in leadership roles at distinct departments. 

JetBlue’s announcement was made last week in an internal company memo to non-union Airport Crewmembers. Union Pilots and Inflight Crewmembers will not be affected. In the statement, Dana Shapir, Vice President of Airports Experience, stated the decision to eliminate GO Lead positions was made to ensure that the airline was safe and successful, and was not being taken solely due to ongoing financial hardships caused by the pandemic.

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In the memo, Shapir said, “it’s up to us as leaders to make sure that [Crewmembers] have the tools and structures in place needed to succeed and stay safe – not just through the pandemic – but through our recovery and eventual return to growth.”

The vice president did not explain how eliminating the positions would make the airline safer. In the memo, she also announced the elimination of Training Coordinator positions. Those job responsibilities, which include safety training, will fall on regional offices.

At JetBlue Airways, Leads are paid an hourly premium of $2.50 over their pay scale, which is determined by years of service. According to the statement, Supervisors will absorb Lead responsibilities overseeing the ground handling of aircraft.

Impacted workers will be permitted to apply for a Supervisor position or voluntarily step down to a Ground Operations Crewmember position. The memo stated that while JetBlue was eliminating premium pay, newer Leads would continue to get the higher rates until their non-Lead wages could catch up over time.

At JetBlue, Supervisors are salaried employees, which means they often earn less than hourly Lead Agents, who qualify for premium overtime pay and can pick up extra shifts. Supervisors, meanwhile, are paid according to a salary scale that does not change based on the number of hours worked. Therefore, every Ground Ops Lead at the airline is facing a significant pay cut, while the airline may reap significant savings in employee payroll.

Besides eliminating the Ground Ops Lead positions, JetBlue will also discontinue all Training Coordinator Positions. These jobs will be replaced with a Regional Field Educator, who will be responsible for several airports rather than just a single location.

Responding to a query about whether it is normal for an airline to eliminate Lead Positions system-wide, Frank Giannola, District 141 Membership Services Director at the Machinists and Aerospace Workers Union, said that such a move was abnormal. “I’ve never seen it happen before, not in my 32 years in the industry.”

“Leads, or ‘Leaders,’ as JetBlue calls them, are your elite employee classification,” said Giannola. “These are your career guys. I was a Lead for 18 years, myself. And, to just cut them all off like this; it’s something I’ve never seen happen before.”

“These guys have busted their ass to get where they are,” he added. “Now, all that work has been taken away from them. It seems vindictive, especially now, after a year of enormous sacrifice on the part of the workers.”

Giannola was reluctant to speculate on why JetBlue may be making these moves but dismissed out of hand the company’s stated position that it would promote safety and success at the airline. “Eliminating front-line leadership roles does not promote safety. That makes zero sense.”

Frank also takes issue with JetBlue’s claim that “this change will not eliminate jobs.”

“I don’t know how they can say that,” Frank said. “They’re eliminating jobs, an entire classification of jobs.” In union parlance, a job classification is determined by contract language that identifies a unique workgroup or workplace. At American Airlines, for example, Fleet Service (the equivalent of JetBlue’s Ground Ops) has three main classifications – Full-Time, Part-Time, and Lead.

“Every one of these Crewmembers is losing their position, even if they are allowed to start a new role at the same company; these are positions and work that are going away. These jobs are being taken over by management, and those that hold them now are being demoted.”

“They’re also losing income – even if they are allowed to keep their current pay rates, they are still losing future income with the loss of premium pay,” Giannola said. “To say otherwise is dishonest.”

When asked if something similar could happen at United or American, Giannola was resolute. “No. We wouldn’t agree to it at American, United or any airline where we represent workers.”

“Because they’re union, and in union, those workers negotiated a legally binding agreement with their company,” said Giannola. “They can’t violate that agreement without a vote from union workers to approve the changes.”

“It wouldn’t even surprise me if the company was demoting an entire classification at Ground Ops to free up money to pay for salary increases for Supervisors,” he added.

“It’s always better to team up with your coworkers in a union, so you’re not dealing with a multi billion-dollar company alone,” Giannola said. “If allowed, companies tend to contract out chunks of non-union work altogether. We see it happen all the time. It’s already happening in Newark with PrimeFlight employees in the Bag Room and Ticket Counters.”

“What I’m worried about is – what are they going to take away next?”

 

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