More than 99 percent of United Airlines’ U.S.-based employees who did not seek a religious or medical exemption from the company’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate got the shots, while 593 who refused to comply will lose their jobs.
Chicago-based United shared the results of compliance with its vaccine requirement Tuesday, its deadline to provide proof of vaccination.
“This is a historic achievement for our airline and our employees as well as for the customers and communities we serve,” United CEO Scott Kirby and president Brett Hart said in a memo to employees. “Our rationale for requiring the vaccine for all United’s U.S.-based employees was simple — to keep our people safe — and the truth is this: Everyone is safer when everyone is vaccinated, and vaccine requirements work.”
Less than 3 percent of the company’s 67,000 U.S. employees requested religious or medical exemptions. Earlier this month, United said employees granted exemptions would be placed on temporary leave Oct. 2, while those whose requests were denied would have five weeks to get the shots or face termination.
That deadline was pushed back after six employees filed a lawsuit against the airline alleging it failed to provide reasonable accommodations for employees seeking religious and medical exemptions.
Five of the employees said the company granted their request but only offered unpaid leave, while a sixth said his request was “administratively denied,” according to the lawsuit, which is seeking class-action status and was filed in federal court in the Northern District of Texas last week.
United said it would aim to resolve requests for accommodations by Oct. 15.
The airline previously said employees in customer-facing roles who sought exemptions would be placed on leave until the pandemic “meaningfully recedes,” while those in jobs requiring fewer interactions could return once United developed testing and safety protocols.
People granted religious exemptions were told they would be on unpaid leave, while those granted medical exemptions would be on medical leave, which can include some form of compensation.
United is moving ahead with terminating the 593 employees who did not get vaccinated or request an accommodation, though that number could shrink if they change their minds about the vaccine, United said. Company officials said they did not expect their departures to affect operations.
While some employees are leaving United because of the vaccine requirement, some people applying for jobs at the airline “volunteered that they were especially interested in career opportunities at United because of the vaccine requirement,” a spokesperson said.
While United is the only major U.S. carrier to require the COVID-19 vaccine, Delta Air Lines plans to begin charging unvaccinated employees on the company’s health plan a $200 surcharge each month, starting Nov. 1.
Atlanta-based Delta said 82 percent of its employees were vaccinated as of last week, up from 75 percent when the fee was announced last month. Earlier this month, Delta also began requiring unvaccinated employees get weekly COVID-19 tests “while community case rates are high.”
American Airlines and Southwest Airlines have not provided updates on the share of their workforce that has been vaccinated. Both carriers have encouraged vaccines but stopped short of mandates or fees.
All four carriers would be required to force employees to get vaccinated or get tested for the virus regularly under a mandate President Joe Biden issued earlier this month.
Biden’s order directed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to develop a rule requiring companies with at least 100 employees to adopt vaccination mandates or weekly testing programs, with penalties of up to $14,000 per violation.
In a letter to employees earlier this month, executives at American said they were waiting for more details on the order but expected it would affect the airline.
“While we will review the details of the plan and determine the path forward for American, what we know is that the president’s actions underscore the importance of team members getting vaccinated against COVID-19 — and sooner rather than later,” executives said.
Story by Lauren Zumbach, Chicago Tribune.