8,000 Delta workers tested positive for covid as the airline cut sick leave

Out sick.
Out sick.
Image: Reuters/Elijah Nouvelage
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Eight thousand Delta Air Lines employees tested positive for covid-19 over the last four weeks, CEO Ed Bastian said today (Jan. 13), representing 11% of the company’s total workforce.

Staff absences at Delta and other airlines, coupled with inclement weather, spurred thousands of flight cancellations over the holiday season. Delta reported losses of $408 million in the last quarter, and said it expects recovery to be delayed through January and February.

The news highlights an ongoing battle between Delta and the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA union over worker safety. The covid cases occurred during a period when the company, which does not have an employee vaccine mandate, cut its covid sick leave from 10 days to five. Delta has defended the new isolation policy, as it falls in line with federal public health guidance, but the union has challenged the airline on the guidance, saying it pressures employees to come to work while still feeling ill.

Delta cut sick leave as omicron ramped up

On Dec. 21 Delta executives wrote a letter to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Rochelle Walensky asking the agency to shorten the recommended period of isolation for fully vaccinated covid-positive individuals, arguing a 10-day isolation period could “significantly impact our workforce and operations.” Other airlines, including JetBlue, made the same request.

A week later the CDC did just that, recommending that covid-positive individuals isolate for five days, as long as their symptoms improve. The agency cited research indicating most covid patients are contagious early in the illness, with transmission usually at its highest in the first five days after an individual develops symptoms.

Delta cut its covid sick pay and isolation policy in accordance with the new guidance the last week of December. Whereas employees testing positive for the coronavirus previously received 10 days of paid sick leave to isolate, they now receive five, with the potential to receive two additional sick days if they test positive at the end of the shortened period. The new policy only applies to vaccinated employees.

The airline’s response has critics

Delta has consistently defended its shortened sick leave policy. The company’s chief health officer Henry Ting called it a “safe, science-based and more practical approach” given that the omicron variant “involves a shorter duration of illness and a shorter contagious period compared to previous strains.”

The Association of Flight Attendants, which is currently trying to unionize Delta’s flight attendants, disagrees. The union’s president Sara Nelson claimed last week that she was getting reports the airline told workers to come to work even if they were still testing positive for the virus.

Delta fired back with a cease-and-desist letter on Jan. 11, calling Nelson’s statements false and defamatory.

While the spat between Delta and the flight attendants union is in part driven by an ongoing push to unionize the airline’s workers, it raises questions about whether the new guidance contributed to the 8,000 covid cases among staff. While Delta’s policy says employees must be asymptomatic before returning to work, it doesn’t require them to test for covid before returning, raising the possibility that workers could show up to work while still positive for the virus. Nelson claimed last week that a covid-negative employee was asked to show up to work at Delta despite having symptoms, and later tested positive after interacting with other staff and passengers.

But even the union is moving in the direction of the CDC guidance, despite its criticism of Delta’s approach. Nelson said today the union is working with other airlines it represents to develop a “nuanced policy” to allow staff that have recovered from covid to go back after five days. United, which is represented by the union, still has a 10-day isolation policy in place. That airline said on Jan. 11 that 3,000 of its staff had tested positive for the coronavirus, or 4% of its workforce.