Growing anger among WestJet flight attendants about a compensation model that restricts hourly wages to time actually spent in the sky bodes well for a unionization drive at the airline, according to one employee who backs labour organization.
The employee, who doesn’t want to be identified for fear of reprisal, says the industry-wide system that only compensates flight attendants for time between the departure from one airport gate and arrival at the destination terminal is unfair.
That means full-time flight attendants receiving a starting wage of $25.29 per hour of flying time won’t be compensated for time on the ground preparing airplanes for service, deplaning passengers or any activities before or after flights.
If cabin crews spend half an eight-hour day in the air, they would earn the equivalent of $12.64 an hour, less than the $14 minimum in Ontario.
And flight attendants on modified work due to injury are only paid the 4.5 hours despite having to work an eight-hour shift.
“A lot of this does and is currently pushing us towards unionization,” he said in an interview.
It’s the latest labour headache for Canada’s second-largest airline, after the union that represents WestJet and WestJet Encore pilots filed an unfair labour practice complaint in February over the airline’s recruitment of pilots for Swoop, its new ultra-low-cost carrier slated to begin flying in June.
Other airlines follow a similar pay structure but also have “workarounds” such as minimum duty days and stipulations for how much of a day the employees will be paid. At WestJet there is no minimum pay guarantee per day unless there are irregular operations or an employee works on his or her day off.
“What we’re looking for is some kind of recognition of the fact that what we’re doing now is not enough,” the flight attendant added.
He said flight attendants were aware of the wage system when they were hired but only truly understood the impact when they work 13-hour days but only get paid for a fraction of their time.
The Calgary-based airline has long promoted the competitive advantage of having an entrepreneurial, friendly workforce, and said its salary and compensation package offers unique features including profit-sharing it says is among the best in the airline industry.
“We believe that our total compensation, along with the work-life balance we provide our cabin crew, is generous and compares very favourably to carriers of a similar size,” spokeswoman Lauren Stewart wrote in an email.
The head of the union representing flight attendants at Chorus Aviation-owned Jazz Aviation LP says his group was able to negotiate additional protection in 2015 by requiring the hourly wage be at least double the minimum wage in a province.
That means Toronto-based flight attendants employed by Jazz to fly Air Canada Express receive starting wages of $28 per hour, rising to $30 next January if a second increase takes effect.
The hourly wage in Alberta is slated to rise to $30 in October when the province’s minimum wage rises to $15.
“All the other airlines in Canada to my knowledge have not taken that step and as a result are playing catch-up,” said Canadian Flight Attendant Union president Trevor Beattie.
CUPE said its Air Canada Component recently raised the issue of flight attendants being underpaid with the airline. The starting rate at Air Canada Rouge is even lower than the mainline carrier.
But Beattie wonders why these large airline unions have previously failed to address this issue in the industry.
Hugh Pouliot, a spokesman for the Canadian Union of Public Employees, said the issue of pay only for work in the air has been raised repeatedly during its union drive.
“Until CUPE’s there sitting down with WestJet management at the bargaining table we can’t materially change it, but it would be an issue in bargaining,” he said.