WestJet laying off 6,900 workers amid worsening COVID-19 crisis

WestJet says 6,900 of its workers are being laid off amid a dramatic downturn in business because of COVID-19.

Calgary-based airline had about 14,000 employees before coronavirus outbreak

WestJet is rehiring nearly 6,400 employees let go due to the COVID-19 pandemic, citing new emergency funding from the federal government. (Daniel Slim/AFP/Getty Images)

WestJet says 6,900 of its workers are being laid off amid a dramatic downturn in business because of COVID-19.

The Calgary-based airline said Tuesday that 90 per cent of those employees are leaving voluntarily.

The number of people who lost their jobs represents about half of the company's workforce, WestJet said in a release.

"The fact that we avoided a potentially worse outcome is testament to the spirit and selfless attitude demonstrated by our people, who have enabled WestJet to continue operating with a collective remaining workforce of 7,100," said WestJet president and CEO Ed Sims.

"This is devastating news for all WestJetters."

The executive team has taken a 50 per cent pay cut while vice-presidents and directors took a 25 per cent cut.

The airline also said it has paused more than 75 per cent of its capital projects and is asking suppliers for a reduction or delay in payments.

Last week, the airline asked employees throughout the organization to opt for one of several options, including unpaid leave of absence, early retirement, voluntary resignation, reduced work week or reduced pay.

In a message to its members Tuesday, CUPE, the union representing WestJet cabin crew, said 1,982 of its members selected a voluntary option, so for the month of April at least, there were 298 involuntary layoffs among CUPE members.

"The union will continue to focus on working alongside the company to avoid further layoffs to every degree possible. We will also focus our efforts on ensuring a fair and transparent recall process with the goal of returning all of our members to the line as soon as possible," said CUPE's message.

On Monday, WestJet said it was reducing the number of flights it offers within Canada by about half because the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced the demand for air travel.

But the airline said it is nonetheless committed to "keeping critical economic lifelines open for the 38 communities we serve across Canada."

Meantime, the airline is boosting its attempts to get Canadians who are stranded abroad during the unfolding health crisis home. 

From Monday to Wednesday, the airline said it will "operate 34 repatriation flights to international and transborder destinations to ensure the safe return of WestJet guests and Canadians who remain abroad."

Air Canada layoffs

Up to 600 Air Canada pilots will also go on unpaid leave in the coming months due to the fallout from the virus, their union said Tuesday.

Capt. Michael McKay, head of the Air Canada Pilots Association, said the union agreed to a plan late Monday for a maximum of 600 pilots on furlough.

The pilots have also agreed to reduced pay across the board and "simplified contract language" to allow them to retire earlier, he said.

"Like all Canadians, the more than 4,400 pilots of Air Canada and Air Canada Rouge have been deeply affected by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, personally and professionally, with the precipitous drop in passenger demand and the challenging operating environment," McKay said.

He is joining other unions in calling on Ottawa for financial relief for the aviation industry.

Due to the complexity of pilot training, the precise number of positions immediately affected at the country's largest airline remains unclear, he said.

On Thursday, the union representing Air Canada's flight attendants said the company will temporarily lay off more than 5,100 members.

With files from The Canadian Press

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