Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian insisted Wednesday that ordering unvaccinated employees to pay $200 more every month for their company-sponsored healthcare plan isn't a shot mandate, as workers will still have the choice not to be immunized.
"Every company has to make its own decision for its culture, its people, what works according to its values," Bastian told CNN Wednesday. "I think these added voluntary steps, short of mandating a vaccine, will get us as close to 100% as we can."
Employees learned about the new rule through a staff memo, in which Bastian said the monthly surcharge will take effect on Nov. 1, and that it's necessary to address the financial risk the airline faces from people who choose not to be vaccinated.
"Protecting our people has been priority number one throughout the pandemic, as it always has been," Bastian said. "We were one of the first companies to be out with wide-scale testing of all employees, sponsoring vaccines at all of our main locations. Right here in the state of Georgia we hosted the largest vaccination site in the state, vaccinated hundreds of thousands of people, both Georgia residents as well as our own people."
He added that the airline made its decision after the Food and Drug Administration gave full approval to the Pfizer vaccine earlier this week.
"It gives us the opportunity now to go to the next step and provide more stringent requirements on those people who have not been vaccinated," said Bastian.
In addition to adding the surcharge to unvaccinated workers' insurance bills, the company is requiring they wear a mask at all times, " said Bastian, adding that in two weeks, those employees will have to undergo COVID tests.
"This is not just costing lives, this is costing us financial resources as well," he said, noting that Delta has already achieved a 75% overall vaccination rate, but there is still room for improvement.
"While we can be proud of our 75% vaccination rate, the aggressiveness of the variant means we need to get many more of our people vaccinated, and as close to 100% as possible," he said.
But the company is stopping from a full-out shot mandate because Delta has "one of the highest vaccination rates of any company I'm aware of, by already using voluntary measures," said Bastian. "I think these added voluntary steps, short of mandating a vaccine, will get us as close to 100% as we can."
He added that the company's planes are already "probably the safest place you can be," when it comes to COVID-19 because of the precautions the company has taken.
"All customers are fully masked and the air filtration system has worked really well," said Bastian. "We have over 80% of our crews, pilots, and flight attendants, already vaccinated. I think this last step just short of a mandate will work with us."
According to a Delta Air spokesperson, an employee's average hospital stay for COVID-19 costs the company $40,000. To avoid the surcharge, which applies to the whole workforce, employees must provide documentation of being vaccinated.
Delta competitor United Airlines has mandated shots for employees to protect operations from the delta variant of the coronavirus, and President Joe Biden has urged private businesses nationwide to enforce employee mandates.
Meanwhile, vaccine mandates for domestic passengers flying Delta aren't in play, and may not happen, said Bastian.
"Passengers right now are required to be vaccinated to travel to most international locations," he said. "Within the domestic system, there's no evidence that there's been spread of COVID in the domestic air transport system. As a result of that, coupled with the logistical challenge of carrying millions of people a week in the domestic system, it would be quite a logistical snafu for us to try to require that domestically."
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