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WestJet flight attendants claim they’re paid less than minimum wage

Some WestJet flight attendants are claiming the airline routinely pays its cabin crew less than minimum wage, since they are only paid for the amount of time they spend in the air, not their time at work.

It’s industry standard for flight attendants’ pay to be based on the time from wheels up to wheels down, although most airlines also provide some compensation for the time flight attendants spend at airports before and after flights. WestJet does not, and it’s become a sticking point with flight attendants as minimum wages rise across the country. The airline’s compensation for flight attendants could, in fact, be violating federal labour rules, according to one union. 

‘Other airlines have guarantees — if you put on your uniform and go to work, you get a minimum of this much pay.’ – WestJet flight attendant

CBC News spoke with two flight attendants who each have more than 10 years’ experience with WestJet. CBC News has agreed to protect their identities as they fear retaliation for speaking publicly.

“WestJet doesn’t pay its flight attendants like other airlines. It’s frustrating,” one WestJet employee said. “We’ve brought it up before that other airlines have guarantees — if you put on your uniform and go to work, you get a minimum of this much pay.”

The flight attendants say the way WestJet calculates their pay puts them at a disadvantage.

For instance, cabin crew on a one-hour flight from Calgary to Vancouver could end up working a four-hour shift from the time they arrive at the Calgary airport to the time they leave the Vancouver airport.

westjet schedule

On this day, the WestJet flight attendant works almost eight hours but is paid for about three hours (as indicated in the BLK, or block, column), since that’s how long the employee spent in the air. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

WestJet would pay the flight attendant for one hour of flying time — so a rate of $ 26 per hour spread out over the four hours they were physically on the job turns into $ 6.50 an hour for that type of shift, they say. That’s well below the minimum wage in both Alberta ($ 13.60) and British Columbia ($ 11.35).

Full-time flight attendants have a starting wage of $ 25.29 per hour of flying time, and the maximum wage is $ 47.50 per hour. Based on the expectation of around 80 flying hours a month, an annual base salary begins at about $ 24,500 and tops out at about $ 46,500.

“Somebody out of high school will look at $ 25 and think that’s fantastic, not understanding that’s per flying block hour, not duty hour,” one flight attendant said.

Everyone is talking about minimum wage increases and are up in arms about Tim Hortons workers who deserve better. What about the person who is responsible for your safety on an aircraft? Yes, they serve you coffee most of the time, but that’s not really their job.”

Total compensation ‘generous,’ airline says

?Flight attendants at the Calgary-based carrier have tried for several years to unionize — a drive that has renewed energy following the unionization of pilots, who are currently negotiating their first contract.

WestJet declined requests for an interview and did not respond to requests for clarification, information or comment. 

WestJet flight attendant pay scale

Full-time flight attendants at WestJet are expected to fly 80 hours a month, and pay is based on years of experience. (CBC News)

In a statement to CBC News, WestJet said it “provides our cabin crew members with a salary and compensation package that offers [a] variety of unique features.”

WestJet provides full-time cabin crew members with benefits, an optional share-purchase program and profit-sharing when the airline is profitable. 

“WestJet profit-sharing is among the best in the entire airline industry,” the statement said. “We believe that our total compensation to our cabin crew is generous and compares very favourably to carriers of a similar size.”

Comparing airline pay

The scenario of a flight attendant working a Calgary-to-Vancouver flight would result in higher pay at other airlines. If an on-call flight attendant at Jazz worked that same shift, they would receive a minimum of 4½ hours’ pay, instead of the one hour that WestJet would pay.

The union representing flight attendants at Jazz made sure there were daily minimums in their contracts.

jazzplane_cp_4611239

A flight attendant who is on call but doesn’t have to report to work isn’t paid by WestJet for that day, while at Jazz they would receive four hours’ pay. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

“It’s critical to ensure employees don’t actually come to work and potentially go into debt as a result of the expenses occurred getting to and from work versus the pay they actually get for the amount of work they actually do when they show up,” said Trevor Beattie, president of the Canadian Flight Attendant Union, which represents cabin crew members at Jazz.

The airline and union link the starting salary of flight attendants to twice the minimum wage in the province where the employee is based.

“Meaning that the starting wage in Toronto now for our flight attendants is $ 28 an hour,” said Beattie. 

Beattie also credits Jazz for having a standard for the minimum hours paid for on-call flight attendants, whether they are asked to report to work or not. 

At WestJet, if a flight attendant is on call but doesn’t have to report to work, they aren’t paid for that day. At Jazz, they would receive four hours’ pay.

In another example, if a flight attendant works a 12-hour shift that includes four hours of flying time, they would receive four hours’ pay at WestJet, six hours at Jazz and eight hours at Air Canada. Jazz pays for the amount of flying time or half pay for every hour on the job — whichever is higher. Air Canada pays for the total number of flying hours or for total time at work minus four hours — whichever is higher.

Federal rules

The way WestJet pays its flight attendants could be in violation of federal labour rules, which stipulate that on-call workers who are asked to report to work must be paid for a minimum of three hours.

In addition, companies in federally regulated industries such as aviation have to pay employees for all work.

“The employer has an obligation to pay the employee for all hours worked and not for just one activity at work,” Olivier Bouffard, spokesperson with federal labour department, said in a statement. “Hours spent by an employee at the employer’s disposal on the worksite, such as preparing for the flight and cleaning the plane, are considered hours of work and they should be paid their hourly rate.”

WestJet wing

‘The employer has an obligation to pay the employee for all hours worked and not for just one activity at work,’ said Olivier Bouffard, a spokesperson with the federal labour department. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

So far, the labour department has not received any formal complaints from WestJet flight attendants. Bouffard wouldn’t say whether WestJet is breaking any rules.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) said it is looking into whether federal labour rules are being broken. “That’s a possibility and something we’re exploring,” said David Fleming, a CUPE representative who has been working for about a year to unionize WestJet flight attendants.

Fleming would not provide numbers or timelines about how the drive is progressing besides saying “things are going well.”

He said challenges at the airline include turnover among flight attendants, and the difficulty of connecting with cabin crew members, who by the very nature of their jobs are in transit much of the time.

The flight attendants who spoke to CBC News say they don’t want to quit their jobs because they appreciate the flexibility the position provides and they would lose their seniority if they joined a different airline.

CBC | Business News