White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows Wednesday signaled that President Donald Trump is considering the use of executive orders to help prevent hundreds of thousands of airline employees from being laid off this fall.
Meadows, speaking during a Politico Playbook online event, said the White House is concerned about the Sept. 30 expiration of $32 billion in payroll support that was approved as part of the $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill in March (PL 116-36). On Tuesday, American Airlines said it would lay off or furlough 19,000 workers if relief is not extended through March 2021. United Airlines in July said it would furlough some 36,000 employees if the payroll support is not extended. If such actions were extended industry-wide, it would involve hundreds of thousands of workers.
“We’re looking at other executive actions,” Meadows said, but added that “it would take” another relief package to extend the relief approved in March.
“Hopefully we can help out the airlines and keep some of those employees from being furloughed,” he added.
Groups fighting for the extension said while they appreciated the White House support, they doubted an executive order would effectively renew the aid.
“It will definitely take Congress acting to keep all of the job requirements in place,” tweeted Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, but added, “Good to see WH wants to restart talks.”
Nicholas Calio, president and CEO of Airlines for America, said he was grateful for White House support. He called the March aid a "lifeline" and said that airlines "have taken significant steps to trim costs" since receiving it.
"Unfortunately, COVID-19 continues to spread and wreak havoc on our industry, and demand for air travel has not returned as anticipated," he said. "A challenging fall lies ahead for U.S. carriers. Without additional federal aid, U.S. airlines are being forced to make very difficult business decisions, including furloughs and reductions in service."
Meadows' comments reflect increasing urgency among labor unions, airlines and lawmakers to extend the popular Payroll Support Program, which gave $25 billion to commercial passenger airlines, $4 billion to cargo airlines and $3 billion to airline contractors.
The program was credited with helping to prevent massive layoffs in the airline industry in the early days of the pandemic-driven decline of air travel. In a note to employees announcing the possible layoffs, American CEO Doug Parker and President Robert Isom called it “an incredibly effective piece of legislation.” American took $5.8 billion in payroll support funding.
The two wrote that the furloughs combined with voluntary reductions would effectively reduce American’s workforce from 140,000 to fewer than 100,000.
“The one possibility of avoiding these involuntary reductions on Oct. 1 is a clean extension of the (Payroll Support Program),” Parker and Isom wrote.
There are clear signs of congressional support for a clean extension of the aid: A coalition of 16 GOP senators and another of 223 House members from both parties have sent letters to congressional leadership urging an extension of the program through March 31, 2021.
Stacy Day, a spokeswoman for American Airlines, said the airline hopes “to come to a resolution in a timely fashion.”
“We have been in touch with the administration and we greatly appreciate their concern for our team members and their support for the aviation industry,” she said.
In a message to members, Nelson of the flight attendants union, expressed gratitude for the support, but told members “executive orders will not save our jobs.”
“Executive orders would not put in place a ‘clean extension’ of our Payroll Support Program with all of the job requirements that will save our jobs and keep our industry intact to serve the American people during this pandemic — and provide the lift our economy will need on the other side of it,” she wrote. “We need Congress to act.”
Meadows urged lawmakers to call congressional leadership and “let them know that it’s a priority.”
“It's all about keeping people in jobs during this V shaped recovery,” he said.