US flight attendants seeing financial strain due to coronavirus outbreak, union president says

(NEW YORK) — The head of a flight attendant union said hundreds of thousands of airline workers are already taking a financial hit as U.S. airlines continue to cut flights amid the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Sara Nelson, both a current flight attendant and president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, said workers in the union she represents are already seeing a difference in their paychecks.

“Quite a bit of schedules have already been cut. They’re already feeling the effects of not having overtime hours,” Nelson told ABC News in an interview. “And now the airlines are asking people to take leaves.”

She said flight attendants will start to see a hit in their paychecks right away, because without flights, they won’t be working the same amount of hours.

“We just don’t have access to the hours that we use to be able to have, the kind of income that we had three months ago,” she added.

This comes amid a new travel restriction — going into effect Friday at 11:59 p.m. — that will suspend the entry of foreign nationals who have been in 26 European countries — known as the Schengen Area — within 14 days of their arrival in the United States.

Delta Airlines, American Airlines and United Airlines are offering employees voluntary leaves of absence, the latter two offering unpaid leave. Those same airlines also instated hiring freezes.

“We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people who are on the frontlines of aviation and almost a million people who do something that relates to the aviation work,” Nelson said. “So these are millions of jobs that we’re talking about.”

An American Airlines pilot has tested positive for the coronavirus, as the carrier confirmed late Thursday. Nelson said airline workers continue to do their jobs, even while knowing the risks.

“We are often on the frontlines of communicable disease. We’re often the first ones to encounter it,” Nelson told ABC News. “There’s no way that we can completely protect ourselves from this virus and we know that, but we take very serious precautions and we approach this as any other first responder would.”

She added, “We are here to take care of people’s needs and look out for the safety, health and security of the people who are in our care, and we have done a good job with that so far. We take this very seriously.”

Nelson — on behalf of her union — is calling on Congress to pass a stimulus plan that would also help workers in aviation.

“As Congress is thinking about responding to this, tax cuts are not the answer, loan guarantees are not the answer,” she said. “Stimulating those companies without passing that directly on to the workers with paid sick leave, and unemployment benefits that are extended, are not going to help the economy.”

She added, “You’ve got to help the frontline workers.”

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