American Airlines layoffs hit Austin.
"What happened on Sept. 11 did not seal American Airlines' fate," said Patricia McCarty, who has worked for American for nearly 20 years. "They were already in financial trouble. Now they're playing on this national tragedy to restructure their company."
If McCarty sounds bitter, it's because she is. She spent most of last Friday dismantling her office at American's "travel center" at the Capitol Marriott, where she worked as a customer service representative alongside Jane Foster, a 25-year American employee, who also lost her job.
American's decision to cut 20,000 jobs and close all but nine of its nationwide travel centers has left McCarty and Foster in uncertainty. The company offered to transfer them to another city, but neither McCarty nor Foster is keen on uprooting her family and leaving Austin. McCarty is the guardian of a 2-year-old child and has a daughter in college who lives at home to save expenses. Foster's son is a senior in high school and her husband is self-employed. While McCarty last week felt she had no choice but to pick up and move, Foster was less certain about leaving town, even though she's a few years shy of retirement and risks losing her retirement benefits.
A week earlier, the two women -- like thousands of other airline employees -- had been encouraged by their supervisors to spend their work days e-mailing and calling Congressional representatives to lobby for a $15 billion industry bailout, which they believed would help preserve their jobs. Hours before Congress approved the funding on Friday, Sept. 21, however, American delivered the bad news to its travel center workers -- via a system-wide e-mail. "We were just dumbfounded," Foster recalls. "It was so cold and impersonal."
And efficient, said American spokeswoman Laura Mayo. "There's not a management person in each of the travel center offices who could have notified the employees personally," Mayo says, "so an e-mail was the fastest, most efficient way to let everyone know."
The following Monday, employees received their individual termination notices. The last line of the notice was the clincher: "Due to the unique circumstances of the emergency, we regret that we are unable to offer severance." (American has since decided to provide "separation packages" for laid-off workers, including a week of pay for every year of service up to 13 years, a 90-day continuation of medical benefits, and recall rights for 10 years).
The first thing Foster and McCarty did after reading their notices was to contact the office of Congressman Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, the first representative to voice opposition to the bailout. Doggett was one of only two Texas representatives to vote against the measure (along with Ron Paul, the anti-subsidy Rep whose district includes parts of Austin's hinterlands). "We called Congressman Doggett's office to say that he was absolutely correct on this and that we applauded what he did," Foster says.
In a brief telephone interview Monday evening from his Washington office, Doggett said he was hopeful that a measure to extend benefits and job training for laid-off airline employees would be included as an amendment to an airline security bill, which the Senate was scheduled to consider this week. "The issue [of benefits] is still alive but being attacked by people like Dick Armey," Doggett said of the Dallas Republican and House majority leader. "They're calling this a handout." Armey has also described the proposed aid package as "not commensurate with the American spirit," according to a recent Wall Street Journal article.
In Rep. Paul's office, spokesman Jeff Deist said that while his boss voted in favor of an earlier $40 billion overall aid package in the wake of the disaster (as did Doggett), "We thought the additional $15 billion crossed over the line" to subsidies. "The majority of the airlines were already in trouble, and some of them would not have survived -- or they would have consolidated -- with or without Sept. 11," said Deist, who as of last week didn't know where his boss stood on unemployment benefits for airline employees.
All told, the job loss for Austin-based American employees was less severe than in other cities. The local head count included six travel center reps and 20 agents at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, according to American spokeswoman Mayo. But that's little consolation to McCarty and Foster, who say other airline companies offered alternatives to layoffs, such as salary cuts or hour reductions. "Other airlines that were just as affected by this turned to their employees and actually gave them options," Foster laments.
Another aspect to the airline crisis fuels the women's anger: American's travel center employees -- most of them women -- are a rare group of nonunion workers, who in the past have chosen not to unionize in deference to their employer's wishes. "They used pretty aggressive tactics to convince us not to unionize," Foster says. "They used us and gave us a false sense of security. But we're not giving up. We're continuing to contact them [American] and ask tough questions. I think they underestimated our perseverance."