By Kelly Yamanouchi, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Atlanta airline also introduces weekly COVID-19 testing for holdouts
Delta Air Lines plans to charge employees who haven’t been vaccinated against COVID-19 an extra $200 a month beginning in November as part of the company’s health care plans.
Atlanta-based Delta, which cited high hospitalization costs, also will require unvaccinated employees to be tested weekly for the coronavirus starting Sept. 12 while cases are high.
About 75% of the airline’s 75,000 employees are already vaccinated, and the company already requires new hires to get shots.
Others have been advocating more strongly for vaccine mandates since the Pfizer vaccine got full approval from the Food and Drug Administration on Monday. Hundreds of millions of doses of that COVID-19 vaccine and others like Moderna’s already have been administered this year in the U.S. under emergency provisions.
Even before this week’s FDA news, some big U.S. employers such as Google, Disney, Microsoft, Walmart and Georgia-based UPS, Invesco, Emory Healthcare, Piedmont Healthcare, Wellstar Health System and Cox Enterprises (owner of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution) announced vaccine requirements for many employees, particularly those entering corporate office spaces or medical centers.
But many companies have shied away from vaccine mandates, which remain a polarizing issue among Americans. In Georgia, manufacturers and poultry processors are encouraging vaccinations but say requiring shots could lead many front-line workers to quit.
The issue also has divided airlines. United Airlines said earlier this month it will require vaccinations among employees, but American Airlines, Delta’s other main rival, is not mandating them. Southwest Airlines, the No. 2 carrier at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, also is not requiring vaccines.
Delta CEO Ed Bastian has expressed hesitancy about mandating vaccinations for existing workers, saying a portion of the employee base is likely not getting shots for medical or religious reasons, and that a requirement would influence a relatively small percentage of the workforce.
But the $200 monthly surcharge for unvaccinated employees enrolled in Delta’s health care plan starting Nov. 1 could serve as a strong financial incentive for more employees to get shots.
Bastian in a memo Wednesday urged employees to get vaccinated.
“I know some of you may be taking a wait-and-see approach or waiting for full FDA approval,” he wrote in the memo. “With this week’s announcement that the FDA has granted full approval for the Pfizer vaccine, the time for you to get vaccinated is now.”
Delta, which funds its own health care plans, said the average COVID-19 hospital stay costs the company $50,000 per person.
The $200 monthly surcharge for unvaccinated employees “will be necessary to address the financial risk the decision to not vaccinate is creating for our company,” Bastian wrote in the memo. He added that in recent weeks, all Delta employees who have been hospitalized with COVID were not fully vaccinated.
The airline’s only major unionized group is the pilots, represented by the Air Line Pilots Association at Delta, which said it “has consistently advocated to maintain the right of each individual pilot to consult with his or her medical provider regarding COVID-19 vaccinations or booster doses.” The pilots union added that it respects Delta’s efforts to mitigate the impact of breakthrough infections, but if the company wanted to mandate vaccinations for pilots, it would need to bargain with the union.
Delta also said it will limit the continuation of pay for people with COVID-19 cases to fully vaccinated employees, starting Sept. 30.
The company, which reopened its headquarters and offices in June, also now requires unvaccinated employees to wear masks indoors at work “until community case rates stabilize.”
More than 25,000 of the airline’s employees are based in Georgia.
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