Delta says 90% of employees are now vaccinated

Delta Air Lines employees work the ticket counter in the Domestic Terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Delta is requiring new hires to be vaccinated. But for existing employees it is instead penalizing unvaccinated workers with a monthly $200 health insurance surcharge starting in November, along with requiring them to take weekly COVID-19 tests and wear masks. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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Delta Air Lines employees work the ticket counter in the Domestic Terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Delta is requiring new hires to be vaccinated. But for existing employees it is instead penalizing unvaccinated workers with a monthly $200 health insurance surcharge starting in November, along with requiring them to take weekly COVID-19 tests and wear masks. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Airline, unlike major rivals, hasn’t mandated COVID-19 shots

Delta Air Lines said 90% of its employees are now vaccinated against COVID-19, as the company continues its approach of financially penalizing workers who don’t get inoculated rather than imposing a mandate.

The Atlanta-based airline announced in August it would impose a monthly $200 health insurance surcharge on unvaccinated workers starting in November, along with requiring them to take weekly COVID-19 tests and wear masks.

“We have a plan and the plan is working,” said Delta CEO Ed Bastian in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, adding that he expects 95% of employees will be vaccinated by November.

“We’re showing that you can work collaboratively with your people,” Bastian said, “to trust them in making the right decision.”

Other major U.S. airlines including United, American and Southwest have required employees to get the shots. Chicago-based United said last week that 99.5% of its employees had been vaccinated. But United, American and Southwest have also faced backlash from some workers.

Bastian acknowledged that there are vaccine requirements for federal contractors by Dec. 8 and that Delta is a federal contractor. He has said Delta will follow any executive order requirements, and said “we’re going to have our employees vaccinated by then.”

“My point is I’m saying the mandates are not the only way to get people vaccinated,” the CEO said. “The issue is around personal choice.”

Bastian acknowledged during a conference call Wednesday with investors that “undoubtedly there will be a small number of people that will not be vaccinated.” He estimated that after exemptions, it would be roughly 1-2% of employees, “and we’ll have to assess that when the time comes.”

But, he said, “right now I think we’re fully in line with the intent” of the executive order for federal contractors.

Bastian added that Delta is “not philosophically opposed to mandates,” noting that Delta has been requiring new hires to be vaccinated since May, and has hired more than 8,000 people so far this year.

But he added that “mandates have become a political and polarizing term.”

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp threatened last month to go to court to block President Joe Biden’s federal vaccine requirements.