Waiting for aid: U.S. airline workers 'pawns' in stimulus battle

CHICAGO, Oct 20 (Reuters) - When she is not helping her kids with remote school or worrying about her next mortgage payment, Jessica Trujillo spends her days rallying friends and co-workers to lobby Washington for federal aid to protect airline workers who feel their fates are trapped in a political tug-of-war.

After so far failing to convince Congress to approve another $25 billion bailout for coronavirus-slammed airlines, the industry is looking to a fresh Tuesday deadline set by Democratic House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi for a COVID-19 relief deal with the Republican White House.

Airlines were hoping for legislation before Sept. 30, when a first package tied to job protections expired despite broad bipartisan support as Democrats and Republicans wrestled with conflicting agendas and priorities before the Nov. 3 election.

"We're pawns," said Houston resident Trujillo, one of at least 50,000 airline workers - along with her flight attendant husband Rene - without a paycheck.

United Airlines and American Airlines, two of the top three U.S. carriers, have furloughed 32,000 workers. At least 20,000 other employees of the two companies have taken unpaid leaves of absence while watching rollercoaster negotiations in Washington that have seen prospects for more aid rise and fall on a daily, and even hourly, basis.

"We are bare-bones right now and the emotions back and forth are really really hard," said Trujillo. She and her husband both chose unpaid leave from United in order to ensure medical coverage after losing Rene's brother, who did not have health insurance, to the coronavirus in September.

They are part of a politically diverse group of airline workers from gate agents to pilots who have spent the past three months bombarding lawmakers with phone calls, letters, emails, social media posts and marches pleading for more airline payroll support either through a large COVID-19 relief deal or a standalone bill.

Last week President Donald Trump was willing to raise his offer of $1.8 trillion for a COVID-19 relief deal with Democrats in the U.S. Congress, but the idea was shot down by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a fellow Republican, who plans a Senate vote on a $500 billion proposal on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Pelosi has stuck to her demand for a $2.2 trillion aid and stimulus package.

"I think I can speak for a lot of my colleagues when we say we’ve lost faith in our elected officials," said Miami-based Phillip Delahunty, one of 19,000 furloughed American Airlines employees. "I feel like our livelihoods and our well-being are being used for political gain in this country right now."

Congressional aides said Monday the chances for a standalone measure to provide payroll assistance to U.S. airlines before the Nov. 3 election had dimmed.

Rene Trujillo expressed a "huge level of disconnect" between politicians and American workers. "I honestly feel that we're just leverage in everybody else's game," he said.

Trump is trailing his Democratic rival Joe Biden nationally and in battleground states, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling conducted Oct. 9-13, less than a month before the election.

United and American have both vowed to bring back employees if lawmakers extend relief.

"It's like we're in purgatory," said Jennyne Trani, a single mom in Las Vegas who was furloughed by United and has held off on upending her family and moving somewhere more affordable while she awaits news from Washington.

"Just tell us," she said. "I gotta figure my life out." (Reporting by Tracy Rucinski; Editing by Leslie Adler)