Delta Air Lines will impose a $200 monthly surcharge on employees who aren’t vaccinated against COVID-19, becoming the first major US company to levy a penalty to encourage workers to get protected.
The new policy was outlined in a memo from chief executive Ed Bastian, who said 75 percent of the carrier’s workers already are vaccinated. Increasing cases of coronavirus linked to a “very aggressive” variant are driving the push for all employees to get the shots, he said in the note to employees Wednesday.
The fee applies to employees in the airline’s health care plan who haven’t received shots by Nov. 1. The company also will require weekly testing for employees who aren’t vaccinated by mid-September.
Delta stopped short of a mandatory vaccine requirement like the one imposed earlier this month by United Airlines and other companies. Goldman Sachs, Google, and Facebook also have announced vaccine requirements.
Delta is confident that its approach will succeed in moving its worker vaccination rate beyond 75 percent, a spokesman said when asked why the company didn’t impose a mandate. The potential penalty is “well within” legal parameters, he said.
While vaccine requirements have increased since Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine received full Food and Drug Administration approval on Monday, employers are treading carefully for fear they’ll hurt morale and spur defections in a tight labor market. Some consultants doubt that surcharges will be as persuasive as demanding inoculation, though the size of Delta’s surcharge could change that calculus.
“Vaccine hesitant employees are likely to see this as a mandate or a punitive measure, as it creates an additional annual cost of $2,400 for that employee,” said Brian Kropp, chief of human-resources research for the Gartner consulting firm.
The fee for unvaccinated employees is “to address the financial risk” from their decision, Bastian said. The average hospital stay for COVID-19 patients has cost Delta $50,000 each, he said.
“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,” Bastian said.
American Airlines and Southwest Airlines continue to encourage employees to be vaccinated but haven’t imposed mandates.
In May, Delta became the first major US airline to require coronavirus shots for new employees. The airline had agreed not to mandate vaccinations for its pilots, the only major work group represented by a union, until at least Nov. 21. The pact also provided incentives for pilots to be vaccinated.
Delta would have to negotiate a new agreement “over any employer-mandated vaccination for pilots,” the Air Line Pilots Association said in a statement. Union leadership “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.”
Under the policy announced Wednesday, any worker not fully vaccinated by Sept. 12 will be required to take a weekly coronavirus test “while community case rates are high,” Bastian’s memo said.
Employees who aren’t vaccinated must wear masks in all indoor settings, effective immediately. Delta also said that starting Sept. 30, the airline would preserve full pay for workers who have received both shots but who still get sick and may end up on short-term disability.