Temporary workers make up 10 percent of the airline's customer service division.
A Delta Air Lines program that uses temporary workers for numerous positions at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport is drawing fire from the carrier's full-time staffers who say it jeopardizes their jobs and pay.
The program, called Ready Reserve, was rolled out at MSP last year and employs 165 seasonal workers. It's an extension of Delta's temporary workforce program already in place at all seven of its hubs nationwide.
The MSP hub was unionized under Northwest Airlines, but after Delta bought the carrier in 2008, workers voted to get rid of the union. That allowed the company to bring the Ready Reserve program to MSP. Delta is the only major U.S. airline that has such a program.
Ready Reserve jobs start at $10.82 an hour and can range from handling baggage to de-icing the planes. Delta declined to say how much of a cost savings it gets from the program or how many workers it employs nationally, but said the program helps it better manage staffing levels.
"Our view is it's a win-win," said Delta spokesman Morgan Durrant. The program "fits well with its operations today."
But Ready Reserve, a 30-year-old program, has drawn controversy. Full-time staffers are worried that as they retire, their positions will be filled with Ready Reserve employees. The program already makes up 10 percent of the airline's customer service division at MSP, and full-timers say that will only grow. They're also concerned temporary workers will diminish starting wages down the road because they typically earn less than full-timers.
"Everything that is happening right now makes the full-time employee feel like they are a vanishing breed," said Kip Hedges, a full-time Delta baggage handler. "What they are doing is transforming a career job into a revolving-door job. The whole thing is set up for the destruction of a career job."
Dan McCurdy, a ramp customer service agent, said the workforce has been through enough already.
"The average seniority of our workforce has been reduced drastically by buyouts, retirement and increased use of regional aircraft flying in and out of Minneapolis," McCurdy said.
And employees say they have a disdain for the program for moral reasons, too. While Ready Reserve workers get perks like flying free on standby and preferential treatment when applying for full-time jobs, they lack basic benefits such as health insurance. Full-timers also say it's unfair because seasonal workers who do the same jobs typically get paid less.
And full-timers say there is yet another rub for Ready Reserve employees: If they are hired full time with Delta, they end up taking a pay cut. The starting pay would drop to $10.06 a hour. The upside is that they would gain health coverage and access to Delta's 401(k) program.
"We are very clear and upfront about the proposition with Ready Reserve candidates as they are offered a position," Delta's Durrant said.
Durrant said the program is a good springboard for other roles at the airline, adding that three Delta vice presidents got their start as Ready Reserve workers. Delta also said the program can be beneficial to teachers and college students who are looking for supplemental income.
From November 2008 to the end of 2011, more than 2,700 Ready Reserves were hired full time nationwide, Durrant said. Delta hired 52 Ready Reserves into full-time jobs at MSP last year.
While analysts say Delta is the only major carrier with such a program, companies across the nation are hiring more temporary staffers because it helps them save money in a tough economy. And with a growing number of people unemployed or underemployed, there are plenty of folks willing to take the jobs.
"It means that Delta can find at least some people who are willing to work for lower compensation," said Aaron Sojourner, an economist at University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. Delta is "watching their bottom line. They are trying to boost profits and have to satisfy shareholders," he said.
The Ready Reserve program is one of the key reasons that a group of former union workers at Delta is trying to restart the union. Workers at MSP and other hubs are collecting cards to support their union efforts in order to trigger another election. Employees say they need to collect cards from 50 percent of employees, which include full-time, part-time and seasonal workers, in order to start another election.
"If the union effort is defeated, there will be no stopping further increases in Ready Reserve or fighting for Ready Reserve benefits," stated an entry in Blue Notes, a newsletter written by employees in favor of the union. "Delta will buy out or force out senior workers and steadily increase the number of lower paid workers."
Delta acknowledged that it does prefer to fill full-time jobs with Ready Reserve staffers who want to work full time. However, "it's never been Delta's policy to force anyone in a full-time position into a Ready Reserve position, and that will continue," Durrant said.
But baggage handler Hedges says he's concerned about the future.
"These aren't jobs to fill temporary needs," Hedges said. "These used to be full-time positions with benefits."
Wendy Lee • 612-673-1712