Furloughed WestJet workers demand clarity on wage subsidy program amid pay cut

WestJet Airlines Ltd. is warning furloughed workers their pay will be cut by up to 53 per cent starting Sunday due to changes in the extended federal wage subsidy, prompting flight crews to call on Ottawa for action.

The maximum weekly payment for more than 3,200 employees on furlough — a mandatory leave of absence — who rely on the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) will drop to $400, down from $847, according to a WestJet memo sent out Wednesday.

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In his message, vice-president Mark Porter attributed the decision to changes by the federal government to the newly extended subsidy program.

"With the (Canada Emergency Response Benefit) program coming to a close at the end of September, the objective now is to ease the transition off of the CEWS program by aligning CEWS benefits with those offered specifically by an expanded EI program," the memo reads.

"We understand that the significance and irregularity of changes to these programs has been incredibly difficult for WestJetters."

Affected flight attendants called on the government to clarify when and how much money will arrive in company coffers via the federal subsidy in order determine whether wages can return to current levels.

"WestJet can't float our wages until Ottawa fills in the blanks, so our members are seeing their cheques cut in half," said Chris Rauenbusch, who represents about 4,000 WestJet flight attendants — 2,500 are furloughed — with the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

"It is so frustrating to see the government touting CEWS while bureaucratic bumbling and ever-changing rules leave us wondering what to expect next," he said in a release.

"Many employees have called me in tears at the prospect they might not make rent."

Effective Sept. 27, the pay cut applies to all furloughed cabin crew, corporate employees and 700 pilots.

"A lot of these pilots are the primary wage earners in their family, and any reduction in the take-home pay is very worrisome to us," said Capt. Dave Colquhoun, who chairs the Air Line Pilots Association's WestJet contingent.

The union called on the Trudeau government this week to come forward with targeted financial support for the aviation sector.

"We see that other sectors of the economy are in recovery, but the airline industry is not," Colquhoun said.

"That uncertainty wears on people that are sitting at home. It’s tough."

The federal finance department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The WestJet memo came days after the Liberal government pledged to extended the wage subsidy into next summer.

The program currently covers 75 per cent of a worker's normal hourly wages, up to $847 per week. For airlines, the vast majority of employees remain furloughed or laid off, as passenger levels remain below 10 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.

Unlike WestJet, Air Canada opted not to administer the wage subsidy to the bulk of its 38,000 employees, more than half of whom were laid off in June.

"No one inactive is on it, meaning members are either flying (so the company would be able to collect CEWS for these members) or they are laid off, and not CEWS applicable," said Wesley Lesosky, who heads Air Canada's CUPE component.

"We have raised the recent announcement of an extension to CEWS with the employer yesterday and are hoping for further discussions on this early next week."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 25, 2020

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