Delta Air Lines has accused the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) of a defamatory campaign of misinformation on Twitter concerning Delta’s COVID-19 sick leave policy. Delta is demanding the AFA cease and desist such deception. But the AFA is digging in, claiming that its statements were true and warranted. 

Delta Air Lines Accuses AFA Of Defamation

Forecasting a tremendous staffing shortage that seemed needless due to the less invasive nature of the COVID-19 omicron variant amongst the vaccinated, Delta was one of many companies which requested that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reduce the quarantine period for asymptomatic positive cases from 10 days to five days.

While the CDC claimed its decision to halve its quarantine period was rooted in data and observation (science), the AFA cried foul, accusing the CDC of kowtowing to business interests over human health and safety. Nevertheless, Delta updated its COVID-19 employee policy to reflect the new CDC guidance.

This included new guidance for when to return to work after testing positive:

  • Fever or no fever: if you are not feeling well, don’t come to work.

  • If you tested positive for COVID-19 and, after five days, you still have a fever that is 100.4F or higher, you could still be contagious and you should continue to isolate.

  • We recommend taking a test on Day 5, which can help guide your steps:

    • If the Day 5 test is negative and symptoms have resolved (for example, your temperature has been below 100.4F for 24 hours), you may come to work and property mask on Days 6-10.

    • If the Day 5 test is negative and you are still feeling symptoms, do not come to work.

    • If the Day 5 test is positive, you should continue to isolate for two more days and take another test on Day 7 (and will receive COVID-19 pay protection).

    • If the Day 7 test is positive, you should continue to isolate for three more days (and will receive COVID-19 pay protection). You may return to work on Day 11. If the Day 7 test is negative, and you do not feel up to return to work, you can utilize PPT [paid personal time].

Delta Alleges Defamatory Tweet

However, Sara Nelson, International President of the AFA, took to Twitter to allege that Delta was really asking sick workers to come back to work or face discipline:

This tweet (and others like it) prompted a stern rebuke from Delta, including a cease and desist letter from Peter Carter, Delta’s Chief Legal Officer.

The demand letter began bluntly:

“I am writing you to request that the AFA-CWA cease and desist from posting and promoting false and defamatory information about Delta Air Lines.”

Carter went on to outline the policy I noted above, then added:

“Recently AFA used Twitter to spread false and defamatory information regarding Delta’s COVID-19 policies. Specifically, AFA reported that Delta is telling employees testing positive for COVID-19 to come to work after five days even if they are still testing positive. In addition, AFA reported that Delta is telling employees who were exposed to COVID-19 and have symptoms to come to work. This false information was disseminated without anyone from the AFA organization contacting Delta to ensure the information that was set forth as fact was accurate. 

“Not only is this information false, but it is actionable because it places Delta in a highly negative light by suggesting Delta was asking employees to work while they were ill. Even more troubling, the AFA’s conduct appears to have been made with the intent to create fear and confusion among Delta employees about their own health (which is candidly reprehensible). Such irresponsible conduct is inappropriate, defamatory and must cease immediately. We expect you to delete the false information from the AFA and its leader’s social media accounts immediately and cease and desist making further false and defamatory statements about Delta.”

The letter was addressed to Edward Gilmartin, the AFA-CWA General Counsel.

Sara Nelson Personally Responds

While the letter was addressed to Gilmartin, Nelson responded personally in a note to Delta CEO Ed Bastian. At the outset, she points to the letter’s failure to quote a single tweet or other statement on social media deemed false:

“Mr. Carter’s letter makes general claims about allegedly false and defamatory statements made by AFA in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic and Delta’s policies for employees with COVID. His letter does not, however, quote a single statement or social media post that is false in any way, much less defamatory. We believe our statements are truthful and accurate. But we will, of course, correct the record if you can point out to us any specific instance where our statements were false when we made them.”

Nelson then claims that Delta updated its guidance to require workers to be asymptomatic before returning to work and still notes that Delta does not require a negative test before returning to work.

“We’re glad that AFA’s calling attention to the issues appears to have led Delta to update its policy several times and communicate this to workers. Delta’s policy now refers to being asymptomatic before returning to work, which was a serious concern as that CDC guidance was initially omitted from Delta’s policy announcement. But we are still getting questions from Delta flight attendants about returning to work with a low grade fever and about the fact that Delta’s current policy only recommends to test before returning to work and does not require a test.”

The policy, which is noted above, indeed does not require a negative test before returning to work if an employee has no fever or other symptoms. However, two Delta flight attendants told Live and Let’s Fly that the recent guidance never changed; that Delta never encouraged symptomatic employees or those who tested positive to return to work.

The remainder of Nelson’s note is intended for an audience far larger than Bastian and touts the positive impact of unions for airlines and employees.

Her note challenges Delta to confront her directly. In all likelihood, Nelson’s tweet may not be defamatory if several employees did report such threats. However, it is also highly convenient that Nelson can point to unnamed sources to launch such strong attacks against Delta, the airline that has drawn her ire for many years as the AFA has continually failed to unionize its flight attendants.


Delta and the AFA are again at war over statements concerning Delta’s policies for employees who test positive for COVID-19. While the nuances of this exchange suggest (at minimum) a stretching of the truth by Nelson and the AFA, this battle is really part of an ongoing war between Delta and the AFA, as it continues its push to unionize Delta flight attendants.

In new forms and in new ways, this struggle will continue. For now, Delta’s COVID-19 sick policy is the latest flashpoint in a decades-long battle over unionization.

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