Carolyn Brown, a Delta Airlines uniform fitter, sorts through clothing racks to find the right sizes for employees during the uniform fitting for Delta employees at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia, on Wednesday, February 7, 2018. (REANN HUBER/REANN.HUBER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Reann Huber
Photo: Reann Huber

Delta to redesign uniforms after lawsuits over rashes, mass opt-outs

Delta Air Lines will redesign its uniforms after employees filed lawsuits complaining about allergic reactions to the new purple garments and thousands of flight attendants and customer service agents opted to come to work in their own clothes instead.

Atlanta-based Delta spent millions rolling out the Zac Posen-designed uniforms in the new “Passport Plum” color a year and a half ago. But ever since, there have been grumblings around about rashes, skin reactions and other symptoms, which the lawsuits say are caused by chemicals used to make garments waterproof, wrinkle- and stain-resistant, anti-static and high-stretch.

Delta has about 25,000 flight attendants and 12,000 airport customer service agents. Ekrem Dimbiloglu, director of uniforms at Delta, said the number of employees opting to wear their own black-and-white attire instead of the uniforms “has grown into the thousands.”

“It’s just too many. We’ve got to be a unified force,” he said.

In late November, Delta simplified the process that allows employees to wear the black-and-white attire as an alternative. Instead of going through a procedure of reporting on-the-job injuries with the airline’s claims administrator, employees can simply notify the company that they want to wear the alternative.

“We believe the uniform is safe, but clearly there is a group that doesn’t,” Dimbiloglu said. “Having a subgroup of employees wearing black-and-white personal attire and having another group of employees wearing the uniforms just isn’t acceptable.”

He said that prompted Delta to “make a bold decision to go ahead and redesign the uniform.”

It’s yet to be determined whether it will be a wholesale redesign or more limited.

Delta aims to revamp the uniforms by December 2021, which will cost millions of dollars. “It’s not a cheap endeavor,” Dimbiloglu said, but “it’s about getting it right for employees.”

In the interim, Delta wants to shift some employees from black-and-white wear by offering alternative uniform pieces. That includes allowing those flight attendants to wear dresses, made of a different material, that only airport agents now wear or a white cotton blouse. The company also will produce flight attendant uniforms for women in gray — the same color as men’s uniforms — with no chemical finish.

The uniform revamp does not apply to Delta’s baggage handlers and other employees who work on the tarmac. Those “below-wing” employees also have new uniforms, but in different fabrics and cuts that have not prompted issues “in any significant way,” Dimbiloglu said.

Multiple lawsuits have been filed by Delta employees against uniform maker Lands’ End. Plaintiffswho are seeking class-action status, say the chemical additives and finishes are causing the reactions.

Delta’s flight attendants and customer service agents are not unionized, but the Association of Flight Attendants union has highlighted the uniform complaint as it pursues a campaign to unionize the airline’s flight attendants. The union said in December it would test the uniforms.

The union said some flight attendants affected by the issue “have lost pay and are experiencing mounting medical bills.”

The issues with skin irritation and other reactions arose in spite of the airline taking three years to develop the new uniform collection, which included testing for allergens, adjustments before the debut and development of alternative uniform pieces in natural fabrics.

Dimbiloglu said Delta now has dermatologists, allergists and toxicologists specializing in textile chemistry to help with fabric selection and testing.

Delta “continues to have faith in Lands’ End,” Dimbiloglu said, adding that “they have been great partners of ours to date.” But, he said, “We’re going to listen to our employees.”

He said the company will conduct employee surveys and will hold focus groups across the country to get employees’ input on how the uniforms should be redesigned.

The Association of Flight Attendants union “applauded the step in the right direction” but said it was “eighteen months late.” The union also recommended the uniform causing reactions be removed as quickly as possible, and that employees with physician-diagnosed health problems be removed from exposure while retaining pay and benefits.

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