May 11, 2020
United Airlines Announces Coming Layoff
Announcing layoffs can be challenging for many different reasons. Fundamentally, no one likes giving or receiving bad news. Beyond that, though, there are more specific reasons why this kind of announcement requires careful consideration of both the messaging and the audiences involved.
The recent announcement made by United Airlines of a coming layoff offers a real-world example of this challenge. In a memo sent out to approximately 11,500 workers and shared with the media, United Airlines head of human resources, Kate Gebo, announced that the airline would reduce hours and staffing in the coming months, layoffs that could also include the company’s administrative team.
The announcement included the caveat that these moves would be made after funding from the CARES Act is no longer available to keep the company afloat. This factor somewhat complicates this communication, because it is unclear if there will or will not be any further help from the government.
What is clearer in the message is that the company expects air travel passenger demand to continue to be drastically reduced, and that United expects it will take some time, perhaps years, for demand to return to pre-COVID levels. That, company leadership says, means growing smaller for the long-term.
These are not the only details in the announcement. Additional communication was specifically focused on non-union employees who were told they would be required to take 20 unpaid days off and that some would be required to transition to a four-day work week.
When asked about the reasons behind these changes, a company spokesperson said they had no choice given the economic circumstances. “Travel demand is essentially zero for the foreseeable future… Even with federal assistance that covers a portion of our payroll expense, we anticipate spending billions more than we take in… For the next several months. That is not sustainable.”
Many company employees are currently on voluntary leave, and United has presented some offers for voluntary contract buyouts. Meanwhile, the company is facing a lawsuit from some union workers, who want to block the reduction in work hours. The suit alleges the choices being forced on employees by the company violates the CARES Act.
Through all of this, the company has continued regular direct communication with employees, offering a series of company memos explaining how things were and what company executives had decided to do about it. While the news is difficult to hear, the communication is clear, allowing workers at every level to make decisions with the facts in front of them.