Now that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has given full approval to the Pfizer COVID vaccine, people are running out of excuses to avoid getting vaccinated. It’s not just people, however… it’s also companies that are running out of reasons to avoid a vaccine mandate, and in the airline industry that means companies are going in different ways.
United has been the boldest and most decisive. It said clearly that if employees weren’t vaccinated by October 25 (or 5 weeks after the first vaccine gained FDA approval), they would not be welcome to work at United. Now that the Pfizer vaccine has been approved, the drop dead date is September 27. Get vaccinated, have a legitimate health or religious reason why you can’t get vaccinated, or you’re out. Now, Delta is getting into the game with a much more subtle twist.
Delta will not block people from working for the company if they are not vaccinated, but it is going to make it more difficult and more expensive to do so. In a memo to employees, CEO Ed Bastian outlined what will happen to those who refuse the vaccine:
- Unvaccinated employees must wear masks indoors at all times “until community case rates stabilize.”
- Unvaccinated employees will be forced to take a weekly COVID test “while community case rates are high,” and if they test positive, they have to isolate at home. They will NOT be eligible for pay protection while they’re sick so they’ll have to use their leave.
- Unvaccinated employees who have company healthcare will be charged an additional $200 per month to offset the costs of hospitalizing those with COVID.
United has gone with the stick while Delta has chosen the carrot. Which one is better?
From a pure health perspective, United’s plan is obviously better. The more employees get vaccinated, the less likelihood there is of people getting sick. And having no unvaccinated employees means that the likelihood of severe illness drops even more dramatically. Yes, the Delta variant — or as Delta hilariously and noticeably refers to it in the letter, the B.1.617.2 variant — can create breakthrough infections, but Delta (the airline) notes that not a single vaccinated employee has ended up in the hospital with COVID.
If this were based on health alone, I imagine Delta would have followed in United’s path. I assume that Delta’s Chief Health Officer Dr. Henry Ting would be a big fan of the vaccine mandate, but I don’t really know since this is coming from Ed and not from the guy with the medical degree.
On the other hand, having unvaccinated employees continuing to work at the airline allows Delta to create an exclusive new product that hearkens back to the days when vaccines were rare and flying was oh so luxurious. Here’s a look at the new Delta 1918 offering:
I kid, I kid… but there is a kernel of truth here. While it may not be about marketing a new luxurious product, it has to be about something else.
Delta says that it has made very little progress in employee vaccination rates since mid-July; the rate has only risen from 72 percent to 75 percent of employees during that time. With a vaccine mandate, Delta might find itself in a tough place from a staffing perspective if it has to lay off a quarter of its workforce. After all, it still can’t staff phone lines properly and says that won’t happen until late September. Losing more employees is going to be a challenge.
Of course, if you put out a mandate, not all of those unvaccinated people will walk away. I don’t know the numbers, but most people are going to just get vaccinated so they can keep their jobs, I’d assume. The question is… who won’t?
Delta doesn’t seem to be concerned about people who make lower wages. The requirement to pay an extra $200 a month for healthcare if you’re unvaccinated will hurt a gate agent, but it won’t hurt a pilot. This does seem like a fairly hefty penalty.
Delta has around 70,000 employees today, so that means 17,500 are unvaccinated. Let’s say half of those people won’t get vaccinated but stick around anyway. They will now pay an extra $200 a month for healthcare. And that will result in an extra $21 million in company coffers each year. Delta says that the average hospital stay is costing the airline $50,000, so that would pay for 420 people per year getting hospitalized from COVID. That seems like a lot since it would be 5 percent of unvaccinated employees. Then again, maybe a higher percentage of employees will choose to get vaccinated instead of paying the tax, and that is the ultimate goal of this program.
It will not be fun for employees who refuse the vaccine. A weekly COVID test will be very annoying, and the need to wear masks indoors at all times — even though seemingly unenforceable — will be a huge bother for those who refuse to get vaccinated and probably already object to masks. So, why can’t Delta just be like United and force the issue?
My assumption is that there is some workgroup with too many people who aren’t vaccinated that has Delta concerned. It’s probably not reservations or anything like that but more likely it’s something that highly-specialized. Maybe pilots? Mechanics? Whatever it is, it seems to be enough to get Delta tap-dancing around the vaccination mandate with something far more complicated.