Southwest Airlines has formally warned nearly 7,000 employees that they face involuntary furloughs in the early spring unless their unions can reach an agreement with management for temporary wage cuts.

If implemented, the cuts would be the first layoffs or furloughs in the history of the low-cost carrier.

Southwest has been in negotiations with unions since October as it continues to burn through what it estimates will be $10 million to $11 million per day during the fourth quarter. The airline has nearly 58,000 employees, a number that it says would result in more than a billion dollars of overstaffing expenses in 2021 at current pay levels.

In October, CEO Gary Kelly said the airline intended to avoid layoffs in 2021 and planned to implement a pay cut on nonunion employees on Jan. 1. At the time, he called on unions to negotiate in earnest and that furloughs would be a last resort.

On Thursday, Southwest distributed formal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notifications to 1,500 flight attendants, 1,221 pilots, 1,546 customer service and reservation agents and 2,551 ramp, provisioning, operations and cargo agents. Those groups are represented by five different unions.

In a statement, Russell McCrady, Southwest's vice president of labor relations, said the airline's goal remains to preserve every job.

"We are willing to continue negotiations quickly to preserve jobs if we can achieve the support that allows Southwest to combat the ongoing economic challenges created by the decline in demand for air travel," McCrady said.

If necessary, Southwest expects to implement the furloughs between March 15 and April 1.


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