Southwest workers say they are left with frostbite after 16-hour shifts

A union representing thousands of Southwest Airlines ground crew workers says some of their members were forced to complete shifts of up to 18 hours in freezing temperatures during last week’s winter storm.

Transport Workers Union of America Local 555 president Randy Barnes said in a statement Wednesday that some of these members experienced frostbite during their abnormally long shifts.

“In severe weather it is unreasonable for workers to be out for long periods,” Barnes wrote. “People need to be able to cycle in and out of the cold. The airline must do more to protect its ground staff.”

Allegations that Southwest endangered the safety of its workers are among the many problems facing the airline, which has canceled thousands of flights and left customers stranded at airports across the country since a major winter storm hit complicated air travel starting in the days before Christmas.

The storm disrupted several airlines’ flights, but no airline was affected as significantly or for as many days as Southwest. The airline on Wednesday canceled about 2,500 flights, while the airline with the second most cancellations, SkyWest, canceled just 77.

Industry insiders said poor planning and a lack of investment in its flight infrastructure plunged Southwest into a slump when other airlines experienced only one problem in service delivery.

The airline workers were expected to pick up the slack. Business Insider reported that, in Denver, Southwest declared an “operational state of emergency” and advised ramp operators they would have to work overtime or risk firing. Workers would not be allowed to call in sick, but would have to provide a note from a doctor they had seen in person, despite the fact that temperatures in Denver were approaching -24 degrees Fahrenheit.

Workers are contractually bound to comply with the requirements set out in the airline’s “operating state of emergency”.

Southwest’s flight cancellations over the past week have drawn the attention of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who called the disruptions “unacceptable.”

“We’ve never seen a situation, at least not under my control, with this volume of outages, so this is going to require an extraordinary effort from Southwest,” Buttigieg said in an interview with ABC News earlier this week. “And we will make an extraordinary effort to make sure they meet their obligations.”

But Buttigieg himself is facing heavy criticism from progressives for his failure to address the airline’s woes despite several woes earlier this year. Senator Bernie Sanders asked Buttigieg to force airlines to reimburse travelers for canceled and significantly delayed flights and to impose fines on airlines for long delays and bad scheduling practices in June, but the Transportation Department didn’t take these measures.

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