United Flight Attendants Have To Prove They’re Sick This Holiday Season

Filed Under: United

United Airlines is putting its flight attendants in an interesting position this upcoming holiday, as reported by Live and Let’s Fly. I see where United is coming from, and also think the requirement is a bit unreasonable…

United requiring absence certificate if sick

United Airlines’ flight attendant contract allows the airline to request that those who call in sick over the holidays present an “absence certificate.” The airline will be enforcing this requirement for the upcoming holiday season.

The way this works:

  • The airline can require this between July 1 and July 7, as well as between December 20 and January 4
  • The airline has to notify the union in advance if it intends to require this
  • Flight attendants who have no absences in the past 12 calendar months are not subjected to this absence certificate requirement

The way this absence certificate works:

  • An absence certificate requires an in-person visit with a doctor
  • The certificate has to be submitted within 72 hours of calling in sick
  • The certificate has to be submitted to United Medical, rather than to a supervisor, since it contains personal medical information

Is this a reasonable requirement from United?

The important thing to first acknowledge is that United has exercised this option in past years, so it’s not like this requirement is new as of this year. Other airlines have historically had similar policies as well. However, you’d think in some ways coronavirus would have changed this.

I can see both sides here, but personally I think United management is ultimately being unreasonable with the execution of this. In the past I feel like we’d sometimes think “well, I’m not feeling great, but I’ll do X anyway.” With coronavirus being a thing:

  • You should always err on the side of caution if you’re not feeling well, even if you don’t have a fever
  • Even if you’re not actually sick, it can be extremely unpleasant for everyone (especially yourself) if you’re in public with a cough, runny nose, etc.
  • If you do call in sick, you’ll need to go for an in-person visit to a doctor; I imagine hospitals and doctor’s offices will be very busy this holiday season, you’re only increasing your risk by going to a doctor in-person, etc.

Personally I think the requirement isn’t totally reasonable, and it’s almost encouraging people to show up to work if they’re sick or not feeling well. I think it would be much more reasonable if a virtual consultation were required.

At the same time, I get the situation from United’s perspective:

  • Some flight attendants may just not want to fly due to the risk, because they want to be with their family for the holidays, etc.
  • The airline has furloughed lots of workers, and the holidays is likely to test United’s limits when it comes to staffing flights; the airline could see a huge number of cancelations if more people than usual call in sick (we just saw this at Delta)

Bottom line

This holiday season, United Airlines will require some flight attendants who call in sick to prove it by going to an in-person visit with a doctor.

I see both sides here. On the one hand, United is going to be short-staffed, and if a lot of employees call in sick, the airline will likely have a large number of cancelations. At the same time, it seems like this is encouraging people to come to work when they’re not feeling well, which seems counterproductive.

What do you make of United’s policy for flight attendants who call in sick around Christmas and New Year’s? Is it fair, or not?

  1. Delta has had the sick note over the holidays’ policy in effect for its flight attendants for at least the last 30 years.

  2. Unfortunately there is always a small minority that take advantage of the situation and call in sick to get a few days off during the holiday. This happened even during pre COVID times as well. To me UA is justified asking for proof if people are calling in sick. It’s a shame a selfish minority has to drive this type of requirement.

  3. When I have a fever of 101F (38C) or above, the last thing I want to do is get out of bed and go to the doctor’s office in the winter. Additionally, many people will get my illness on bus/tram — catch 22. How can I prove that I’m in bed really sick without getting to the doctor?

  4. Yes I assume this is to curb abuses. But how likely are doctors willing to see someone that has the typical one day cold, which would be needed for a certificate. How about FAs coming to work that don’t feel all that well but don’t want to go through the hassle of getting a doctor’s note for what is again that one day cold. And then add to that are they actually infected with COVID?

  5. Policies like this end up encouraging some sick employees to avoid taking time off and work while sick. It’s a bad policy and a good way to spread disease.

  6. The in person visit requirement is what is shocking to me. They want the employee to drive to a Dr and expose other people? If United allowed tele-health and maybe covered the cost I would think it’s a huge deal.

  7. America has this weird bootlicker culture where working for your boss while sick is just something you do or even a point of pride, rather than a something that degrades the quality of the firm’s work and negatively impacts community health. So stupid.

  8. I’m sorry but almost anywhere in the world in every company you have to show a sick note when you’re sick. This is absolutely crucial and very normal. Especially if the employee has a right for paid sick leave. It is crucial in case of a development plan etc.

  9. Since this is a provision in the contract, a contract negotiated by both the company and the union, nobody should be surprised that the company decided to exercise the option at this time. Plus, this has been a standard component of many industry contracts over the decades. The requirement to meet with an actual physician is in place to avoid “internet doctor slips”.

    Nothing new here.

  10. @Gregg- Real-life doctors can (and will) write excused absence notes too even with a nebulous diagnosis – especially with the entire profession urging the population to err on the side of caution right now!

    United is perfectly capable of providing an approved Tele-doc service for its employees to use. Forcing them to risk exposure to themselves or others by presenting to an already-strained (and getting worse) healthcare system is totally irresponsible. They should be made to pay for this negative public externality somehow.

    But, this is also the country that allows coal-fired power plants to dump their tailings into rivers, or allows a public corporate subsidy against full-time workers being on food stamps. So, corporate daddy gets what corporate daddy wants, I guess.

  11. Does it actually say in the terms that an in-person visit is required?
    Based on the LALF article, it just says a physical signature is required. That doesn’t necessarily imply only inperson visits?

    Could this not be done via telehealth and faxing/scanning of forms??? As a physician I fax signed work letters all the time.
    How does United verify that the visit was indeed in-person, anyway?

  12. My HMO doesn’t want a sick person to come in. Just call, describe your symptoms to the on call nurse and they will email you a letter.

    Quick, easy, and with many plans, no charge.

  13. If you are unwell , you don’t necessarily have to visit the doctor. You may not even be well enough to do so.
    In the U.K. it’s only required for over 7 days.
    The US is not a good place to work. Service workers can be paid less than the min wage as tips are considered part of the pay.
    Some states still allow discrimination based on sex or religion.
    It’s easy to lay off people.

  14. I’m okay with everything but the in person doctor visit. This will push some to just go to work. If they could do something like Dr. On Demand it would be a much more reasonable expectation.

  15. I am surprised US sick notes actually identify the medical reason on the sick note. I always thought the reason was “under medical care” (unless it is a communicable sickness as required by law. )

  16. If anything this policy seems very lenient to me. Am I insane to think that they should require all their employees to prove that they are genuinely sick regardless of past absences or time of the year? Otherwise I could also call “sick” on my birthday, on the GTA VI release date, or just because I don’t feel like leaving my bed.

  17. Gregg is 100% correct.

    This is something that was collectively bargained between United and the union, and as such Ben’s “Is this a reasonable requirement from United?” is a moot question.

  18. @Ben L. it’s not a question of me having said mindset and I might have expressed myself incorrectly. My point was that without there being some sort of control of who is genuinely sick, such things *will* to happen. They always have.

  19. @Pete: From a United internal memo to FAs:

    “The Absence Certificate must be prepared and signed by the physician after an in-person visit by the flight attendant to the physician’s office.”

  20. If I was required to have an in-person doctor’s visit to obtain a certificate to excuse an absence, I would just go into work.

    So, UA have no-one to blame but themselves if flight attendants with fever etc. are working when they should be isolating.

  21. This is something that Delta flight attendants have had to deal with for decades if they call in sick anytime in the last 10-12 days of December, as well as most other major holidays.

  22. I just retired as a FA.They have a very strict policy on sick calls. Plenty of times I got sick because FA having to work sick or loss their job.They have a point system that forces Flight Attendants to come to work sick no matter what time of year it is. They laid off so many FA that they are flying the reserves into the ground, which takes a toll physically. Trust me there are plenty FA who work the holidays for the extra pay to cover any sick calls without putting more pressure on FA over the holidays.

  23. I feel like the spirit of the article is not questioning if this is “legal” as Ben clearly states that it is in their contract…Correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t the point here that given the current global situation, is it RIGHT [not allowed] to enforce this section given we are in #2020bizarroworld…After all, any company working with employees under a collective bargaining agreement can always make the [right] choice to NOT enforce a penalizing section of their Agreement [contract]…Also, to whoever stated above that this is “normal”, many/most companies have a similar rule, not one single friend of mine [across many industries, 7 to be exact] has this EXCEPT my travel industry friends…

  24. I retired from United 5 years ago after 30 years and this same policy was in effect then and for many years prior.

  25. i’ll take a canceled flight any day over one sick FA giving out COVID to at least 20 people.
    The enhanced requirement without tele med etc will be a public health hazard.

  26. Health care regulations require that people in Canada NOT VISIT a doctor if they are experiencing any of the symptoms of Covid (which include sore throat and temperature). Thus the requirement to visit a doctor would be totally contrary to Covid spreading guidelines.

    Seems a Catch 22 situation – go to work when possibly sick or contagious or risk being fired.

    Will this response be m od er at e d?

  27. @Endre Telemedicine. It’s a thing.

    Most US employers have a rule like this on the books (although they only ever enforce it if they feel that abuse is occurring). I’ve been working full-time since the 1980s and have *never* ever been asked for this.

  28. Well, if a person is sick and suspects Coronavirus they should go to a doctor in order to get tested. The CDC is telling people to get tested if they show symptoms. So, in this case, if a flight attendant is sick, potentially due to COVID, he/she should see a doctor per the CDC guidelines.

    Seems reasonable then?

  29. Ben – you sound like you never worked for any company or service provider ever.
    Geez – my company makes me report any speeding tickets even if in my own car on non business hours.

    I now I must wear a mask if I go in my office and even close the door.

  30. I worked at American and the Flight Attendants were always calling out sick (especially over the holidays) and getting those days recoded to FMLA. Over 50% of the flight attendants had an open FMLA case which is absolutely insane. Calling in sick causes all sorts of headaches for Crew Scheduling and the Operations. I still remember in 2017, when Doug and the BoD decided to give mid-contract $1B in raises to FAs and Pilots as a good will gesture of sorts. That same December, there was a scheduling glitch that allowed the Pilots to take vacation around the holidays. Those same pilots, who got that $1B raise refused to work those holidays flights and American had to pay a very expensive 150% of their hourly rate.

    Flight Attendants moan and groan about their jobs, but will never leave because of the easy lifestyle. Most are in it for the health insurance and flight benefits. If you don’t want to be there, there are literally thousands of other people that would gladly take your place.

  31. Having been a United Flight attendant (remember me, Ben…flew you into OAK in, like 2007…I gave you a snackbox for your layover?) I can say that the only people who mind this policy are the ones who want to call in sick to get out of flying on the holiday.

  32. Mental health is equally important. I work in an airlines and can say one should plan keeping some last minute dips!

  33. I’m trying to reconcile United’s (and apparently many other airlines’) position on staff sickness with the BS they all spout about how staff are their most important asset, we’re all part of the airline family, etc. Families simply don’t do this to each other (or, at least, it’s only dysfunctional families which would).

    In much of Western Europe, employers would not be permitted to impose this on their staff: eg, in the U.K. “self certification” is the only requirement for the first few days of illness.

    And, as someone else wrote, in a time of pandemic it is simply crazy to require staff with symptoms to attend a clinic in person. Or does United believe Covid19 doesn’t actually exist and is part of a vast conspiracy? Or alternatively, even though it doesn’t exist, it was all a Chinese plot?

    United… the caring airline.

    @Bob May
    “my company makes me report any speeding tickets even if in my own car on non business hours.”

    Get yourself a new employer. The only justification I could see for their rule is if you are a professional driver (when it might be an insurance issue). But otherwise this is just a variant on that incredibly creepy multinational which insisted men should always be clean-shaven and women must never wear trousers. Control freakery.

  34. I don’t get it. I am encouraging my employees to use online consultations, where and when possible, so as to avoid public places. I find it absurd that companies such as UA exist, who are still rooted to archaic practices.

  35. I’m a crew scheduler at a regional airline. FAs calling out sick make my job the most stressful nightmare and you can tell the ones who are calling out just before long vacations or especially over holidays are just not wanting to fly and our staffing is so limited. Now with covid they seem to abuse the system constantly calling out for a whole month “waiting on test results” when it’s the end of the year and people have been getting rapid results for awhile now. Working while sick and with this whole pandemic is its own monster I fully understand and support united on this. So many crew members are going to fuck us over just because they don’t want to work the holidays and aren’t genuinely sick even though those of us on the operation side don’t have special little unions and get the most stress and flack when we have no staff to keep flights on time.

    We’re always the bad guys for the crew but nobody thinks about what we’re dealing with on that side and it’s awful. If you’re really actually sick and have covid that’s one thing but I’ve seen nothing but abuse from the crew members and it does affect the job and the other people working there that are treated like ass and given stricter points/less pay who do actually have to show up on christmas to work.

  36. Holidays last year I got written up for a 2nd sick call at United (not crew) for calling out with strep throat and had a doctor’s note with confirmed diagnosis. My supervisor told me I have to decide when I should just tough it out to help the operation. They also made sure to remind me that we are at-will employees. When those early separation packages came out I signed up within an hour after they posted. CORE4!

  37. @Matt C, I am not sure how many countries you have worked in, however your experience differs dramatically from mine. I have lived/worked in 6 countries on 4 continents, and none of them have had a system where you were required to show ‘proof’ from a GP for taking one or two sick days. The only thing this does is promote a lack of trust between employee/employer and enrich the medical industry by letting a GP earn 100+USD every time somebody has a cold.

  38. @Matt C – 11 countries and counting and never have my employees nor I been forced to show a medical note for a few sick days. I am fortunate that I don’t work in your country.

  39. I think the point of the article is saying they should change their policy during covid times because some people who may actually be sick will come to work and even if you have a cold right now and coughing everyone assumes it’s covid, additionally you have a compromised immune system and have more of a possibility of getting covid and you can still give a cold or fever to other people. I think there should have always been 3 free sick calls for flight attendants without points because every human being gets sick sometimes and airline policies encourage people to work sick and we have all seen what happened when people are forced to work sick.

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