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Delta slashes paid sick leave for workers with Covid after requested CDC change to isolation guidelines

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This story originally appeared in Common Dreams on Dec. 30, 2021. It is shared here with permission under a Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0) license.

Just a day after the CDC delivered updated COVID-19 isolation guidelines that the company’s CEO lobbied for, Delta Air Lines moved to take advantage of the new recommendations by slashing paid sick leave for infected workers, prompting immediate backlash from union leaders and public health experts who warned of such an outcome.

Citing internal communications, the New York Times reported late Wednesday that the airline’s new policy “provides five days of paid leave for workers who test positive for the coronavirus to isolate” and “encourages, but does not require, a Covid test to go back to work, going a step further than the CDC guidance, which does not include a recommendation for additional testing.”

Federal officials’ ongoing efforts to defend the CDC’s policy update have thus far failed to satisfy outside experts, particularly as the Omicron variant spreads and the US reports record COVID-19 cases.

“Delta’s new protocols make no mention of whether returning employees should have improving symptoms, as suggested by the CDC,” the Times added.

Prior to the release of the updated CDC guidance—which cuts the recommended isolation period for those with asymptomatic coronavirus infections to just five days—Delta offered 10 days of paid sick leave for workers battling COVID-19. Under current company policy, only fully vaccinated employees are entitled to coronavirus-related paid time off.

According to a company memo seen by the Times, “Delta will extend its five days of Covid-specific paid time off… by two additional days if an employee tests positive at the end of the initial isolation period.”

Imposed after a spate of flight cancellations caused in part by sick crews, Delta’s policy change vindicated earlier warnings that corporate America would readily exploit the CDC’s less strict guidelines to force employees back to work before it’s safe, potentially putting their health and that of others at risk.

“Shocking!” Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, tweeted sarcastically late Wednesday. “Delta has its protocol out. Doesn’t even meet CDC’s abysmal guidance. And immediately cuts sick leave pay.”

Dear CEOs – your “business needs” are not worth the life of a single worker. Cutting isolation time to 5 days will mean more workers will die. Full. Stop.

Don’t. Do. It.

— Sara Nelson (@FlyingWithSara) December 30, 2021

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, echoed Nelson, writing that “workers’ safety should not be sacrificed to profits.”

“It is workers who are key to passengers being safe in the sky like it is workers who are key to our healthcare and education systems,” Weingarten added. “Respect them, don’t squeeze them.”

Facing criticism from worker advocates and outside public health experts, CDC officials have insisted that the new guidance is based on a growing body of evidence showing that people with COVID-19 are most infectious one to two days before the onset of symptoms and two to three days after.

But the Biden administration has yet to release a brief detailing the underlying science, fueling suspicions that the updated guidelines are motivated primarily by economic concerns rather than public health.

Some administration officials, including CDC Director Rochelle Walensky and chief White House medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, have openly said the recommendations were updated with the economic implications in mind.

“We’re looking forward, as I think everyone feels is appropriate, that, ultimately, when we’re going to have to quote ‘live’ with something that will not be eradicated and very likely would not be eliminated, but can actually be at such a lower level of control—namely a control that does not disrupt society, does not disrupt the economy,” Fauci said during a press briefing on Wednesday.

Federal officials’ ongoing efforts to defend the CDC’s policy update have thus far failed to satisfy outside experts, particularly as the Omicron variant spreads and the US reports record COVID-19 cases. On Wednesday, the US tallied 488,000 new coronavirus cases, shattering the previous daily infection record.

Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, argued in a series of tweets Wednesday that the CDC bears at least some responsibility for Delta’s potentially harmful policy shift.

“Let this sink in—Delta Air Lines first lobbied the CDC to change Covid-19 isolation rules—got its way a few days later,” Feigl-Ding wrote. “Then Delta proceeds to further dilute the new lax CDC rules. And then Delta slashes sick leave for workers.”

“You almost can’t make up a more heinous story than this,” he added. “Delta will only offer five days of paid sick leave for Covid-19—if you are still sick and need to isolate longer, tough shit, says Delta—no paid sick leave.”