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Sick, Flying & Flexibility: Virgin America Requires Doctors Notes from Flight Attendants

Sick, Flying & Flexibility: Virgin America Requires Doctors Notes from Flight Attendants

Virgin America has always run a lean operation from day one. In fact, there was a time during the fuel crisis where the company needed to grow but also thought they may not make it through. They were in need of hiring more flight attendants to keep planes in the air but rather than doing so, they raised the monthly flying minimum for their current cabin crew, referred to as “InFlight Teammate’s,” to 85 credit hours up from 70. Reducing the employees’ days off by roughly three to four days. Now, things are getting even more personal.

Emails from the airline's scheduling department enticing flight attendants to pick up extra flying

Emails from the airline’s scheduling department enticing flight attendants to pick up extra flying between May and June rather than hiring additional crewmembers

Flexibility is at an all time low at the airline, one of the few perks the job is still supposed to provide. Reserve staffing levels are so low that lineholders, for the most part, are trapped into their awarded schedules unable to swap or drop with Open Time. They’re encouraged to trade with each other, but the airline doesn’t allow their flight attendant’s to drop below 70 hours making some trades impossible. And, having their next month’s schedule awarded on the 10th of the prior month, they aren’t able to obtain time off for emergencies or other planned life events that aren’t scheduled one and a half months in advance. Emergency leave isn’t offered, personal leaves of absence and personal days are only awarded based on staffing levels, which are almost always negative, denying such options. Flexibility is a touchy subject at the airline as you can imagine. Originally, flight attendants were promised the ability to drop down to zero hours a month so long as another flight attendant picked up the time, then that promise vanished.

Now enter: The Sick Call. It’s no secret that calling in sick is something that airlines plan for. It’s one of the reasons why reserves exist. It’s true, they’re also around for IROPS (irregular operations), but airlines will claim anything as an IROP to skirt FARs (federal aviation regulations) or pay and they’ll try to hold on to their reserves like airline CEOs hold on to their golden parachutes.

The following communication was recently send to the airline’s flight attendants:

Dear InFlight Teammates,

We have continued to see a spike in call-outs recently resulting in numerous operational assignments to Lineholders and reassignments into days off for Reserves. Effective immediately ITMs will be expected to provide a doctor’s note to substantiate any sick call until further notice.

Paid sick leave is designed to help teammates and family members recover from illness. It is not provided to enhance scheduling flexibility. We do not expect teammates to fly when they are too sick to work. But we do expect teammates to be reliable for the pairings and assignments they have been assigned for when they are not ill. Our schedules are determined by seniority bid. It is unfair for senior teammates, whether Lineholders or Reserves, to fly additional segments/days beyond what they bid to cover for teammates who call out sick when they are not.

These number of call-outs are still extremely high. For this reason, we are requiring a doctor’s note to substantiate sick calls moving forward. You must submit your doctor’s note to your Supervisor within seven days from the first date of any sick call.

If you have additional questions, please do not hesitate to ask your Supervisor or post on Chatter.

We would strongly prefer not to go around collecting doctor’s notes from ITMs, but are confident that we can improve these numbers and achieve better reliability if everyone does their part and we work as a team to serve our guests.

Thank you!

Before I even begin to discuss the decision to require Doctor’s notes I want to talk about this: “We do not expect teammates to fly when they are too sick to work.” However, new hires are subject to a 6 month probation in which they are allowed two strikes. A late and a sick, two sicks, two lates, however you want to look at it. Everyone knows that many new hire flight attendants gets sick in the first six months, usually adjusting to the germs and cabin conditions. If this were to happen to a new hire at Virgin America, becoming sick twice in six months, they’d be fired.. but are also encouraged to not fly when “they are too sick to work.” I digress.

When Virgin America first began the company boasted and raved about their unlimited sick policy. “If you’re sick, stay home!” Oddly enough, the company later claimed that policy never actually existed, even though it was being talked about in “Red Carpet,” otherwise known as new hire orientation. However, because of abuse, the policy later changed to an occurrence system. You were allowed (3) sick calls, up to 6 days in length. Your 4th (up to 6 days) was a verbal warning, 5-6th were a written warning and your 7th termination. Then, that policy also became a problem. It later changed again to a point system basically you get 12 points a year and each working day is 1/2 (0.5) point. 0-4 points, nothing happens to you. 4.5-6 is a verbal, 7-12 is written warnings leading up to termination. Also, with this version of the policy, not calling in for a complete quarter nets you +2pts. Also, every year, you regain the points you used.

Now, because as flight attendants do, the company is requiring doctors notes because the workgroup has cracked the code to the system and use it as a supplement for their lack of flexibility.

Flight Attendants are now required to spend money to obtain a doctors note. Even for the common cold, food poisoning, migraines. Ailments that have the flight attendants taking up time and space at offices that could be treating folks with more severe illnesses. Most of Virgin’s medical benefits require a co-pay, and some offices require the co-pay to obtain the doctors note. And yes, Virgin even has guidelines for the note should say:

  • What does the doctor’s note need to state? The doctor’s note needs to include the following:
    1. A statement that you were medically unable to work.
    2. The timeframe that you were medically unable to work (the note should not state the medical issue itself – just that you were medically unable to work during the dates of work missed).
    3. The doctor’s signature by hand (emails or web printouts will not be accepted).
    4. The date the note was signed by the doctor.
    5. The doctor’s printed name, medical license number, office address, and office telephone number.

This new policy is supposed to crack down on those who abuse the sick policy but it’s also causing a lot of flight attendants to fly when they are ill and shouldn’t be working. They may not be able to afford the cost or the time to go to a doctor’s appointment or Urgent Care. Sometimes illnesses can last a while and may cause InFlight Teammembers to gain upwards of 3-4pts causing them to be on a written warning, so they may choose to risk it and fly sick rather than enter the danger zone on the disciplinary scale.

Rather than letting the flight attendants drop their hours and/or give them another form of flexibility to get out of work and have it covered if they’re sick, they’re now treating them like kindergartners requesting a note to substantiate their absence. The note doesn’t void their points, either.

Now a quote from the guy headquarters loves to fall over, Sir. Richard Branson. They love to show him off and exploit what he says and what he stands for, but rarely do they practice what he preaches. Oh, and by the way, he doesn’t run the airline.

Quote44_look_after_staff_1238x920

Well, Virgin America’s flight attendants have done it backwards according to Sir Richard Branson’s quote. They’ve won the awards, repeatedly, and kept customers coming back. Now, it’s the time the company “looks after” the people who helped it get to where it is today, and to ensure that happens, last August the InFlight Teammates elected to join the TWU and are currently negotiating their first contract focusing on work rules and flexibility.

 

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@ bobbylaurie

Bobby serves as co-host on the nationally syndicated travel talk show "The Jet Set" and is a Travel Expert for various media outlets including CNN, HLN and The Huffington Post.Bobby also worked as a flight attendant for Republic Airlines, US Airways & Virgin America; officially hanging up his wings in March of 2015 after ten years of flying.

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