Delta headquarters employees affected by shrinking of workforce

17,000 Delta employees took early retirement, buyouts
Delta headquarters in Atlanta. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Delta headquarters in Atlanta. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Delta Air Lines is eliminating some positions at its Atlanta headquarters as it reshapes its workforce, but also allowing employees whose spots are affected to apply for vacant jobs.

The move could lead to more departures of employees, as those who choose to not reapply for jobs can take a buyout.

More than 17,000 Delta employees nationally have already taken early retirements and buyouts as it and other airlines struggle to reduce work forces in an industry savaged by the COVID-19 pandemic. Air travel is still down by 65-70% because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Transportation Security Administration statistics.

Many who left Delta were flight attendants, pilots, ground workers, and behind-the-scenes employees including some at its Atlanta headquarters. Now Delta is internally filling vacancies left by those who departed and growing high-priority areas such as its new cleaning division.

“As Delta becomes a smaller, more nimble and more efficient company, we are realigning salaried employee staffing,” the company said in a statement Wednesday.

Many of Delta’s headquarters employees and ground workers are working under 25% cuts in hours and pay from April through the end of the year. And, more than 45,000 employees have taken voluntary unpaid leaves of absence ranging from a month to a year.

Delta’s workforce, unlike other major airlines, is mostly non-union, giving it more flexibility to make moves including pay cuts and shifting flight attendants to different responsibilities. Delta’s only major unionized employee group is its pilots.

Buyouts and early retirements over the summer cut the company’s overall workforce from about 90,000 to 75,000.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian said last month the company would not impose involuntary furloughs on flight attendants or ground workers, but he did not close the door on further reducing salaried employees who aren’t on the front lines of flight operations.

Delta chief financial officer Paul Jacobson said last month during an investor conference that “there have been some hard days.”

Many employees' early retirements took effect Aug. 1. Jacobson said the corporate parking lot has been pretty empty due to employees working from home, but on July 31, “it had more cars in it than I had seen since March."

“But it was people that were coming in that hadn’t been to their desks since March, and they were walking in with boxes, cleaning out their desks and walking out. That was — it was pretty hard to watch,” Jacobson said. “Nobody who retired pictured their retirement being under these circumstances."

Airlines and unions have lobbied for another round of relief funding from Congress, but that failed to materialize before the Sept. 30 expiration of restrictions on pay cuts and furloughs tied to the $25 billion round of CARES Act funding for airlines approved in late March.

Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, the second-largest airline in Atlanta, is also now looking to cut costs.

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said this week that the company wants to avoid layoffs and furloughs through 2021.

But in order to do so, Kelly said the company wants to reduce employees' pay by 10%, which would require negotiations with unions.

“Absent substantial improvements in our business, our quarterly losses could be in the billions until vaccines are available, distributed and effectively kill the pandemic," Kelly said. "And at best, that’s looking like late next year. That’s what it will take to drive increased demand for travel.”