Updated September 3, 10:25 a.m. CT with a statement from Sen. John Cornyn.
Dozens of Houston flight attendants and airport workers rallied Tuesday outside Senator John Cornyn’s office over fears of job cuts, calling for an extension of the federal COVID-19 relief program for airlines.
If Congress doesn’t vote to extend the Aviation Payroll Support Program, it will expire on September 30. The program has kept airlines afloat during the pandemic and contains a prohibition against airline layoffs — many people have been at reduced pay for months, but still employed.
Antonio Marques, lead organizer with UNITE Here Local 23, the hospitality union that represents over 4,000 workers in Houston, said all 800 employees at the United Airlines kitchen have been working part-time since May.
“We definitely have workers starving. We have workers getting evicted from their places,” Marques said. “It’s a terrible situation.”
Airline workers aren’t the only ones continuing to struggle with unemployment during the pandemic. The union also represents hotel workers at the Marriott Marquis in downtown Houston, where Marques said only 10% of workers are currently working.
“We’re putting pressure to get [Cornyn’s] vote on the HEROES Act. And the main reason is because over 90% of our industry are laid off, and they’re still laid off since March,” Marques said.
Romel Tamez, one of the United Airlines employees who has been working part-time since May, said the financial stress is enormous.
"I’m mostly worried about paying rent and light. I'm barely scraping by," Tamez said. "A lot of people are looking for second jobs that are probably also part-time, so it's not really doing much good and there's not really that much work right now."
Around 200 people in his department could lose their jobs starting October 1 if the federal program expires, he said.
“I find it very easy for Sen. Cornyn to sit in his building with air conditioning, taking his vacations while the rest of us who are deemed essential have suddenly been put out of work and told to just deal with it,” Tamez said.
Cornyn was part of a group of Senate Republicans who sent a letter last month to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer asking to extend payroll support for airlines to prevent furloughs or layoffs.
At a tele-townhall meeting, Cornyn expressed his support for continued payroll relief for airline workers.
"Until people have confidence they can fly, and fly safely, that it's going to continue to be a need for the airlines and I will support wholeheartedly the extension of those benefits to payroll protection because I just think it would be a travesty for the airlines to have to lay off good people like you and others,” Cornyn said.
Elizabeth Hibbard, president of Council 42 AFA-CWA, the union representing United Airlines flight attendants based at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, said though the bill has bipartisan support she’s worried Congress won't act in time.
"Cornyn has been trying to get support for this, along with others. What we need is for them to come back," Hibbard said. "Come back to Washington, D.C. and get this signed."
“This isn’t anything that can wait until later,” Virginia McDavid, president of the Harris County AFL-CIO and member of the Association of Flight Attendants, said. “We have families to feed now. We have roofs to keep over our head now.”
Houston Airports — the city of Houston’s aviation department — announced on Wednesday that Air France, Emirates, Qatar Airways and United Airlines are resuming international flights in the Houston area. Nearly two-thirds of the airlines that provide international service at Houston airports, including Southwest Airlines, Air Canada, and KLM, have now restored service in Houston.