Delta Air Lines and a Union Spar Over Isolation Periods for Sick Workers

Delta Air Lines and a large flight attendants union are fighting about whether the company’s new isolation policy for employees who test positive for the coronavirus puts workers and travelers at risk.

The airline’s chief legal officer sent a letter on Friday to the Association of Flight Attendants-C.W.A. saying the union had posted “false and defamatory information” about the company’s policies and asking it to correct those statements and stop repeating them. The union, which represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 17 airlines and is seeking to unionize Delta’s flight attendants, responded on Tuesday that its statements had been “truthful and accurate.”

“Delta has always followed the science to form our policies regarding Covid-19,” the airline said in a statement on Tuesday. “We sent a cease and desist letter because we believe institutions and leaders must speak carefully, truthfully and factually.”

The union’s president, Sara Nelson, said Delta was responsible for confusing workers. “We’re glad that A.F.A.’s calling attention to the issues appears to have led Delta to update its policy several times and communicate this to workers,” Ms. Nelson said in her letter, which was addressed to Delta’s chief executive, Ed Bastian.

The dispute concerns Delta’s adherence to a recent change by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has shortened the recommended isolation time to five days for people who are vaccinated and who get the virus, so long as their symptoms are resolving and they have no fever.

The C.D.C.’s updated guidance was released after Delta executives sent the agency a letter arguing that the previous 10-day isolation period “may significantly impact our work force and operations.” Some public health experts had also called for updated guidelines.

Airlines canceled tens of thousands of flights over the holidays in response to bad weather and because thousands of employees called in sick. In a single day, nearly a third of United Airlines employees at Newark Liberty International Airport reported being unable to work. About 3,000 United employees have recently tested positive for the virus.

After the C.D.C. changed its guidance, Delta quickly adjusted its own policies, slashing the Covid-specific paid sick leave to five days for workers who are fully vaccinated, with two additional paid days if they choose to be tested on Day 5 and the results are positive. In accordance with C.D.C. guidelines, it does not require a negative Covid test to return to work. The C.D.C.’s decision not to recommend a test after five days of isolation has been criticized by some scientists. Delta, which said that over 95 percent of its work force is vaccinated, said employees may return to work only if they had no symptoms and must wear a mask in all settings through the 10th day after testing positive.

Ms. Nelson has claimed that the union is “still getting questions from Delta flight attendants about returning to work with a low-grade fever.” She also said the union was hearing concerns about the availability of tests and confusion over guaranteed pay and the quality of masks required for those returning to work.

Ms. Nelson criticized the changes, warning airlines that they could put passengers and airline employees at risk. Delta’s pilots union has expressed similar concerns.

“Unfortunately, changing C.D.C. and company guidance, compounded by limited testing availability, has led to confusion among employees who may be returning to work sooner than they should or are comfortable doing so,” the pilots union, the Delta Master Executive Council, said in a statement.

Most flight attendants at large airlines are represented by unions, and Ms. Nelson’s organization has been trying to organize Delta for several years.

In his letter to the union, Delta’s chief legal officer, Peter Carter, defended the airline’s policies, saying Delta has been “laser focused on keeping its employees safe and providing them the necessary time off when they are too ill to work” during the pandemic.

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