Westjet said late Wednesday it would add 6,400 laid off employees to the payroll, thanks to a proposed federal wage subsidy.
“We are pleased to announce, after discussions with the federal government, that we will bring almost 6,400 employees back on the WestJet payroll, once the government has approved the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy program,” said Ed Sims in a videotaped message.
The subsidy pays up to 75% of an employee’s salary, up to a maximum of $847 per week.
“This does not automatically mean that they will be coming back to work as there may not be work there for them,” he said. “But it does help them make ends meet.”
Westjet let go 6,900 people – almost half its staff – March 24 as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic hammered the airline. It has cut all international routes from the schedule and plans to fly a little more than 1,500 flights per week domestically for the month of April.
Westjet becomes the third Canadian airline to announce it would put its employees back on the payroll in one day, after Air Canada and ultra low-cost carrier Flair made similar announcements. Westjet is the only airline to rehire fewer people than it cut, though it said in March many of the departures were voluntary.
“The impact of the COVID-19 virus continues to drive down demand,” said Sims. “Despite this downturn, I will reiterate our intention to continue serving the 38 cities to which we currently fly, and I am proud we continue to do so. While most of these cities will see less flights over the course of the week, we continue to be there for them.”
The strategy of maintaining its full domestic network is a marked difference from larger rival Air Canada, which plans fewer than 750 weekly domestic departures through April and has dropped 33 smaller communities from its network.
Sims vows continue flying as long as government rules allow. The airline also said it it playing a role keeping vital cargo moving through its 23 cargo destinations.
“WestJet Cargo is helping keep vital supply chains open and moving,” said Charles Duncan, WestJet Executive Vice-President Strategy and Cargo. “Canadians are depending on us to move critical provisions – from medical products and perishables to household goods – connecting our cargo bases is what we do, in good times and in bad.”
The wage subsidy could be worth more than $140 million to Westjet and its employees.
Sims came under fire from some upset passengers when he welcomed a statement by the Canadian Transportation Agency that offering a voucher for flights cancelled due to the pandemic was acceptable, instead of refunding passengers’ money.
“This may sound bizarre to hear an airline guy encourage people to stay at home,” said Sims, “but by limiting our own travel, we are protecting the safety of our nurses, our doctors, orderlies, and caregivers and we are shortening the time we all need to spend in self-isolation.”
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