Delta employees face pressure to get vaccine

Delta Air Lines CEO says company is 75 percent vaccinated among employees. Photo courtesy Daniel Slim/Getty Images

Delta Air Lines has become one of the latest big employers to hold its employees accountable in getting immunized.

The company has told its workers to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, or pay a $200 monthly surcharge for health insurance, in addition to weekly testing.

According to the Delta News Hub, Chief Executive Ed Bastian shared a memo update to the airline’s 69,000 employees last week that with the Food and Drug Administration’s approval on the Pfizer vaccine, “now is the time to get vaccinated.”

Effective immediately, any employee who is  unvaccinated must wear a mask in all indoor Delta settings, until rates subside. Starting Sept. 12, employees who are not fully vaccinated will need to take a COVID test each week with a negative result to remain in the workplace. Those with aa positive result will need to quarantine immediately and remain outside the workplace. Beginning Sept. 30, the wage protection benefit for COVID patients will only be available to those who are fully vaccinated, but still have a breakthrough infection. The company says about 75% of its employees are vaccinated.

Bastian added that starting Nov. 1, unvaccinated employees who are enrolled in Delta’s healthcare plan will be subject to a $200 monthly charge, which is said to address the financial risk the company is exposed to. Every Delta employee who had been hospitalized with COVID in recent weeks was not fully vaccinated, with the average cost for a hospital stay estimated at $50,000 per person.

Delta did not enforce a vaccine mandate, however, will increase the pressure on employees since Bastian’s memo.

Chris Riggins, a spokesman for Delta’s Air Line Pilots Association Council, says the union agrees not to oppose mandatory testing, but can be seen as subject to bargaining if the company pushes to impose a mandate.

“If we get to the point where mandatory vaccinations are something they need to do, they would need to speak to us about that,” Riggins said.

Bastian was asked by CNN why he hadn’t simply mandated vaccines at first, which he said was an issue of corporate culture.

“Every company has to make its own decision for its culture, its people, what works according to its values. I think these added voluntary steps, short of mandating a vaccine, are going to get us close to 100 percent as we can.”

Jeff Levin-Scherz, a population health leader, says he has his doubts on how effective the insurance surcharge could be. “Sure, the surcharge could increase vaccination rates, but the surcharge approach has no impact on employees who can waive coverage, and the penalties will be disproportionately imposed on lower-wage workers.”

Delta Air Lines has received community pushback among employees. One employee who asked to stay anonymous, said it feels almost unconstitutional, forcing one to get vaccinated or pay not to. It can also make it harder for one to become exempt from the vaccine for religious reasons.

Delta Air Lines plans to hire an additional 2,000 employees in the fall, and 1,000 pilots by next summer.