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Some Southwest ground workers developed frostbite and worked 16-hour shifts amid the airline’s holiday meltdown, union says

Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 at Austin International Airport, TexasA Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 at a gate in Austin, Texas

George Rose/Getty Images

  • Southwest Airlines canceled thousands of flights this week amid extreme winter weather. 
  • Many ground workers were forced to work 16-18 hours shifts during the chaos, their union said.
  • Some developed frostbite after working outside in the frigid temperatures, per the union’s president.

Some Southwest Airlines ground workers developed frostbite after working outside for extended periods of time during the airline’s operational meltdown this month, according to a union representing the workers. 

“Many of our people have been forced to work 16 or 18-hour days during this holiday season,” Randy Barnes, president of TWU Local 555, said in a statement released Wednesday. “Our members work hard, they’re dedicated to their jobs, but many are getting sick, and some have experienced frostbite over the past week. In severe weather it’s unreasonable for workers to stay outside for extended periods. People need to be able to cycle in and out of the cold.”

Southwest canceled thousands of flights in the wake of a deadly winter storm that hit the US during peak holiday travel. Southwest told Insider that scheduling issues are partially to blame, saying the system could not handle the “magnitude and scale of the disruptions,” but it is focused on “making investments in technology upgrades.”

On Monday and Tuesday, the carrier canceled about 5,600 flights — about 70% of its schedule — with over 2,500 already canceled Wednesday morning, according to FlightAware data.

In Denver, Southwest declared a “state of operational emergency” on December 21 and required ramp agents to work mandatory overtime shifts or risk being fired, according to an email to workers from Ground Operations Vice President Chris Johnson that was seen by Insider and verified by the company. 

The next day was Denver’s second coldest day on record, according to the National Weather Service, reaching “life-threatening” temperatures as low as minus 24 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Calling in sick during the state of emergency without providing a doctor’s note would be considered “abuse of sick leave” and result in the employee’s termination, according to the memo, noting that telemedicine and telehealth doctors’ notes would not be accepted. 

—NWS Boulder (@NWSBoulder) December 23, 2022


The emergency requirements for Southwest ramp agents are contractual and allow the airline to “ensure reliability for our customers by having the necessary amount of available, working staff” during periods of mass flight disruptions, a spokesperson said, adding that a state of operational emergency can only be declared at the Denver airport hub. 

“Our network is highly complex and the operation of the airline counts on all the pieces, especially aircraft and crews remaining in motion to where they’re planned to go,” CEO Bob Jordan said in a video statement Tuesday apologizing for the mass flight disruptions.

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Read the original article on Business Insider