Delta to end $200 monthly surcharge on unvaccinated employees

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

The airline also said it will not require masks if federal mandate ends

Delta Air Lines will end its $200 per month healthcare surcharge imposed on employees not vaccinated against COVID-19, CEO Ed Bastian said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

With nearly all Delta employees now vaccinated, the healthcare surcharge — intended to nudge reluctant employees towards getting their shots and cover increased medical expense risk — will discontinue at the end of this month, Bastian said late Tuesday.

It marks a shift in how the Atlanta-based airline is approaching an evolving COVID-19 pandemic. Delta took a lead role early in the pandemic instituting mask requirements, middle seat blocks and testing, then vaccinations.

The airline reopened its middle seats nearly a year ago. Now, the company is pushing the federal government to end the mask mandate for air travel and end pre-departure testing requirements for international travelers.

Delta last August said it would charge employees who had not been vaccinated against COVID-19 an extra $200 a month starting in November 2021 as part of health care plans and require unvaccinated employees to be tested weekly while case counts were high.

Bastian told employees then the surcharge was “necessary to address the financial risk the decision to not vaccinate is creating for our company.”

The airline took the approach of a financial penalty instead of mandating shots for existing workers. Bastian said new hires at Delta will still have to be vaccinated.

More than 95% of Delta employees are now vaccinated, up from 75% when the surcharge was announced.

Coronavirus infections are near their lowest point nationally since July 2021 following a record-breaking omicron surge. COVID-19 cases are rising nationally, largely in the Northeast driven by an omicron subvariant called BA.2, but hospitalizations are at their lowest point since early in the pandemic.

Still, there are concerns another surge could soon start. Philadelphia, for instance, recently announced plans to reinstate its indoor mask mandate amid an increase in infections.

Bastian told the AJC that he’s not concerned.

“Not at all,” he said. “We look at hospitalizations as the key measure,” and he said the airline hasn’t had an employee hospitalized with COVID-19 for a month.

Some companies have discontinued COVID-19 vaccination requirements for employees or new hires, including Starbucks and JPMorgan, according to reports. Last year many employers announced vaccination mandates for at least some employees, including Tyson, UPS and Cox Enterprises, which owns the AJC. COVID-19 vaccination mandates for federal employees and contractors have been challenged in court and put on hold.

Short-term mask mandate extension

The federal mask mandate on planes and public transportation, which was due to expire April 18, on Wednesday was extended through May 3.

Bastian said if the federal mandate is eventually lifted, Delta employees and customers can choose to wear masks, “but we will not require it.”

Delta began requiring that customers wear masks on planes in May 2020 following similar moves by other airlines. The Biden Administration enacted a federal requirement in early 2021.

Last month, Bastian and other airline CEOs sent a letter to President Joe Biden urging him to end the federal mask mandate. Bastian said then, “Current data and science show it’s time to move from mandates to guidance and personal health choices.”

But many experts warn the pandemic is still a crisis. A World Health Organization committee met this week and agreed that the pandemic remains a public health emergency.

“Knowing that we are going into this BA.2 wave, and knowing how much uncertainty is around that, it doesn’t seem to be the right moment to be making these types of decisions” to end the mask mandate on planes, said state Rep. Rebecca Mitchell, D-Snellville, an infectious disease epidemiologist.