WestJet lays off 3,333 workers as pandemic continues to wipe out demand for air travel

WestJet has laid off 3,333 workers and is planning to consolidate and contract out much of its operations as the pandemic continues to sink the majority of demand for air travel.

Company will contract out operations in all but 4 domestic airports

WestJet has permanently laid off 3,333 staff. These permanent layoffs leave just 4,500 on the payroll. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

WestJet will lay off 3,333 workers and is planning to consolidate and contract out much of its operations as the pandemic continues to sink the majority of demand for air travel.

The Calgary-based company had 14,000 staff before pandemic border closures and travel restrictions grounded two-thirds of its fleet, WestJet said in Wednesday's announcement. 

Right now, just 4,500 employees are on payroll and WestJet is looking for ways to bring back 5,500 employees temporarily laid off. 

Wednesday's layoffs are permanent.

"WestJet has remained self-sufficient throughout this extended crisis, cutting our costs by more than 60 per cent," CEO Ed Sims said in a YouTube video about the decision.

"And yet, despite these efforts, the damage we've incurred from a weakened demand environment is being compounded by multiple factors … the reality in which we find ourselves requires difficult and often painful decisions to ensure our continued viability in the future." 

The company will consolidate its call centre in Alberta, and contract out its operations in all but four of its 38 domestic airports, leaving just Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Toronto.

It's also restructuring office and management staff.

Operations reduced by more than 90%

WestJet said its scheduled operations have been reduced by more than 90 per cent year-over-year due to the pandemic.

The company said it's taken measures like instituting a hiring freeze, cutting executive, vice-president and director salaries and pausing more than 75 per cent of its capital projects. 

"To our WestJetters and to your family and friends: this situation is nobody's fault and nothing anyone could have done would have created a different outcome," Sims said, adding that the decision was a last resort. 

He said as the company works to find new partners with airport services, it will look for employment opportunities for the affected workers.

Cuts are 'heart-wrenching,' employee says

One WestJet employee, who has been with the company for more than a decade, said they were told they were losing their jobs through an internal email at the same time as the public announcement.

CBC News has agreed not to disclose the person's identity.

"All of us are shocked by this decision. WestJet has said they're going to hire from a different company and we'll get first crack at those jobs. We know what that will look like — way less pay and will we get benefits anymore?"

"We used to be owners, had shares. We built the company, frankly. So this is absolutely heart-wrenching.

"It's totally unfair … I've worked reduced hours through this [pandemic] … trying to do my part … and then they turn around and farm out our jobs to another company?"

They were told the layoffs will roll out in the coming months.

Last week, fewer than 7,500 passengers arrived at Canadian airports from the United States, down more than 98 per cent from a year earlier, according to the Canada Border Services Agency.

International passenger numbers were down 95 per cent compared with a year earlier, the agency said Wednesday.

Travellers arriving in Canada from abroad must self-isolate for two weeks, and a global travel advisory remains in effect, warning Canadians to avoid non-essential trips out of the country.

A ban on non-essential travel between Canada and the U.S. has been extended until at least July 21.

With files from Erica Johnson and The Canadian Press


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