United Airlines was first out of the gate and strongest with a vaccine requirement for employees. They weren’t just requiring it for new employees (Delta) or incentivizing employees to get it (American). They aren’t just forcing the unvaxxed to take classes explaining that vaccines don’t connect you to the internet or make you the legal property of a pharmaceutical company (Alaska). It’s get vaxxed or get fired.
Here’s Scott Kirby speaking to United Airlines employees:
There are legal limits to what United can do. While the federal government has supported employer vaccine mandates (even before the first full authorization to a Covid-19 vaccine was granted to Pfizer-BioNTech) there are generally carve outs needed for those medically unable to get vaccinated and for those with religious objections. United has had the support of its flight attendants union not to even assist flight attendants in seeking religious exemptions.
While United legal concluded they had to offer these vaccine exemptions, they’ve decided that anyone obtaining one cannot work in some cases “he pandemic meaningfully recedes” and in other cases (such as non-customer facing roles) when new health procedures are in place for weekly Covid testing and masking.
United Airlines employees who receive religious exemptions from the company for COVID-19 vaccinations will be placed on temporary, unpaid personal leave from Oct. 2, the U.S. airline said in a Wednesday memo to staff.
…“Given the dire statistics listed above, we can no longer allow unvaccinated people back into the workplace until we better understand how they might interact with our customers and their vaccinated coworkers,” the airline said the memo.
…United said the restriction and requirements are similar for employees seeking medical exemptions but employees winning exemptions will be placed on temporary medical leave.
In some ways United is taking a truly hard line – and is reasonably likely to attract lawsuits – but at the same time is splitting the baby and not doing much for public health because there’s no requirement that customers must be vaccinated.
- Passengers come into more contact with other passengers than employees (in gate areas, check-in lines, security and in middle seats)
- Cabin crew and airport agents come into more contact with passengers than other employees as well.
I would fly an airline where everyone had to be vaccinated (and those with legally-necessitated exemptions had to properly wear high quality masks). Knowing that employees are vaccinated doesn’t meaningfully change my exposure profile.
And it’s not just Covid-19 I’m concerned with, so airlines need to look at their sick policies so that employees aren’t pressured to work when they’re infectious with things not called Covid-19 as well.
To be sure the airline has a legitimate interest in reducing the chance that crew infect each other, because large numbers of sick employees will compromise the business. It’s prudent to push for a vaccinated workforce during a pandemic. But it’s not a major contributor to passenger protection.