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Southwest offers perks to workers for holiday rush

by Tribune News Service | November 16, 2021 at 1:53 a.m.

Dallas-based Southwest Airlines says it will give workers vouchers for free airline tickets to keep them working through the holidays, the latest carrier to add incentives to try to avert a labor shortage at one of the busiest times of the year.

Southwest said it will give employees between 60,000 and 120,000 Rapid Rewards points to put toward their frequent flyer accounts, which could pay for roughly $700 to $1,600 in travel.

The number of sick calls and no-shows at Southwest "have also hit high volumes," according to a memo to employees, as the airline is short-staffed for flight attendants, gate agents, call center workers and other employees after attempts this year to ramp up after the covid-19 downturn.

Southwest is rolling out the program with "the goal of protecting the operation, upholding our commitment to our customers, and protecting your schedules as much as possible," the company said in the memo.

The incentive program applies to all "operational employees," including pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, reservation agents and others.

The exact requirements vary by different work groups, but most employees who work 36 to 40 days between Monday and Jan. 14 will get the bonus reward points deposited into their accounts. Southwest is following Fort Worth-based American Airlines, which announced earlier this month that it would give $1,000 bonuses to workers who can make it through the holiday period with "perfect attendance."

Southwest and other airlines have struggled at times in recent months as they have pushed their schedules to the max and been met with mass cancellations and delays after minor weather events resulted in a cascade of staffing problems. Southwest is in the process of hiring more than 4,000 workers before the end of the year, but many of those won't be ready until early 2022.

However, company executives have lamented that the hiring process is difficult with a national shortage of workers.

Southwest Airlines still has about 1,500 flight attendants on its inactive list, about 9.5% of all flight attendants, the company's memo said. Between sick calls, no-shows and inactive flight attendants, the company is struggling to get enough crew members for the 3,000 to 3,600 flights a day that the company has scheduled between the beginning of November and the end of the holiday season.

"We currently have far more flight attendants than we would have ever needed to fly our current schedule, but our historical planning models no longer apply," the memo to workers said.

During the peak summer flying months, Southwest instituted an emergency procedure that required flight attendants calling in sick to show a doctor's note upon return to work. But after several months, that angered flight attendants and their union, who said they were being pushed to the limit.

Southwest said it solicited ideas from employees for how to help with staffing during the holiday rush.

However, the union representing flight attendants, Transport Workers Union Local 556, said that while the bonus reward points were a step in the right direction, the company didn't take up suggestions from its members.

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