Newark Liberty International Airport handled more than 23 million flights in 2018 alone. According to figures provided by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the airport, more than 23,000 people are employed there. And more than $33.6 billion of economic activity is generated in the New York City metropolitan area, according to Port Authority estimates. The facility’s importance to the northern New Jersey region is undeniable.
But with talks over a new federal COVID-19 relief package stalled, tens of thousands of those workers could lose their jobs.
As part of the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act, which President Donald Trump signed in March, major airlines received a combined $25 billion under the Payroll Support Program. One of the conditions for receiving the aid was that they avoid lay-offs and furloughs until Oct. 1.
The airline industry, including several unions, are urging Congress and the White House to enact a new package, including another $25 billion in aid for the struggling carriers, who’ve seen air travel drop precipitously amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bans on non-essential travel, steep declines in hotel occupancy, lack of disposal income among Americans and anxiety about potentially catching the virus have all worked to depress air travel by as much as 70 percent in the past year.
Airlines argue that PSP aid is vital to keep finances afloat until air travel resembles pre-pandemic levels.
A group of labor unions, carriers and trade associations representing the travel industry wrote in a recent letter to Senate and House leadership that they are “frustrated that an agreement could not be reached to provide support to people suffering from the impact of the pandemic.”
Going into the pandemic, United Airlines – which operates a hub at Newark and accounts for more than two-thirds of flights in and out of the airport – had 14,000 employees at the airport. The airline said it would have to furlough 13,432 of its employees across the nation after Oct. 1. United did not make clear how many jobs at Newark would be affected.
“In a continuing effort to give the federal government every opportunity to act, we have made clear to leadership in the Administration, Congress and among our union partners that we can and will reverse the furlough process if the CARES Act Payroll Support Program is extended in the next few days,” the company said in a memo distributed at the start of October.
But as administration officials were negotiating with congressional leaders, Trump tweeted on Oct. 6 that he was halting the talks until after the elections, only to tweet hours later that Congress and the White House needed to enact some form of federal aid for the airline industry.
“There are many jobs at stake, between flight attendants and pilots and mechanics and the folks who work in the airport itself. It has a huge economic impact … it’s an urgent issue,” said U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-5th District – the co-chair of the bi-partisan Problem Solvers Caucus.
The 50-member caucus rolled out its own proposed $1.5 trillion CARES Act extension in September, meant to bridge both Democrat and Republican demands.
“You have 10.9 percent unemployment in New Jersey, this will tick up our numbers,” Gottheimer added. “We’re trying to get another round of resources and that’s going to be a huge problem if we have to wait until February” after the presidential election and subsequent inauguration in January.
Christopher Hayes, a lecturer and researcher with the Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations, cautioned that the state’s already strained unemployment system, which has seen 1.6 million claimants since March, would likely begin seeing a new surge of furloughed airport workers. “Having Newark [Airport] here, there are a lot of aviation jobs, whether it’s working on the plane, or working at the airport in various capacities,” he said in an interview. “I think you’re going to see a lot more of those jobs shed permanently.”
Mike Klemm, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local 141 – which includes customer service airplane maintenance and security officers – said that 1,600 of its members at Newark Airport are facing furloughs.
“We’ve done all we can to come up with alternative plans – voluntary programs such as voluntary furloughs, partial pay leave of absences or full-fledged leave of absences with medical benefits,” Klemm said.
An official at 32BJ SEIU, which represents roughly 2,500 subcontracted airport retail and service workers said most of its members had been laid off near the beginning of the pandemic. “Since they’re employed by contractors who are hired by the airlines” they are not bound to the same furlough and lay-off delays spelled out under the CARES Act, said this person, who requested anonymity. “They were the first people to be let go. The airlines kept their employees at the airport and our workers got laid off.”
Another airport worker union, the Association of Flight Attendants CWA, said that roughly 45,000 of its members were furloughed on Oct. 1. “United’s largest flight attendant base is in Newark [Airport],” said Taylor Garland, a spokesperson for the AFA. “Pre-pandemic, that was about 6,000 in the Newark base. The cuts to the workgroup system-wide were about 60 percent of flight attendants.”
A new airport terminal at Newark Airport – Terminal One – is slated for a partial opening in late 2021, with the rest of its facilities coming online over the course of the following year. Port Authority officials said that could generate upward of 23,000 new jobs for people working there.
The bistate agency is banking on the pandemic having slowed down enough by then – and that a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19 will be widely available – to bolster consumers’ confidence that they can fly safely. If that happens, the industry could begin the long climb back to 2019 levels of travel volume and revenue generation.
“I assume once we open this place will be buzzing,” Port Authority Chairman Kevin O’Toole, a former Republican state senator, told NJBIZ during a tour in late July of the Terminal One site under construction.