The American Airlines flight attendants union is telling employees that unlike United, American will offer a way for those who obtain a religious or medical exemption to vaccination to continue working.
Management indicated that, unlike the approach taken by United, they were exploring accommodations that would allow employees to continue to work. [M]anagement committed to complying with their legal obligations to review and consider each accommodation request on a case-by-case basis and to offer reasonable accommodations where appropriate.
While Sara Nelson’s Association of Flight Attendants refused to help employees at United obtain exemptions, the American Airlines APFA pledges to “make sure management abides by the letter of the law where the Executive Order and reasonable accommodations are concerned” though they’re not permitted to “negotiate to provide for particular accommodations or ensure that a Flight Attendant is granted an accommodation.”
Furthermore, APFA emphasizes that unvaccinated employees without an exemption cannot “be automatically removed from service or terminated from employment on the deadline for compliance” because the flight attendants union contract requires a process to be followed for termination. No doubt that’s why, of course, American set a deadline for compliance of November 24 (the day before Thanksgiving) when the federal government is insisting that all employees be vaccinated or have an approved exemption by December 8th as a condition of being a government contractor, receiving CRAF subsidies and government travel city pair agreements.
Delta’s CEO seems to think that unvaccinated employees won’t have to be terminated, as long as most employees get the shot – in other words that the federal government will back down from its stick, not wanting to disrupt holiday travel, since the goal is to see more vaccine uptake.
That could be the case under government contractor rules, but OSHA’s large employer rule is now before the Office of Management and Budget for review. Once promulgated it will get tied up in litigation, creating even more uncertainty for employers. But it’s unlikely to be withdrawn without courts forcing that outcome.
Airline employers (and other government contractors) are in a really tough bind on exemptions,
- Not granting an exemption for religious or medical condition risks legal exposure for violating an employee’s rights. This is likely to be a class action.
- Granting an exemption improperly exposes the employer to penalties.
This is all high stakes. More vaccinated employees protect other employees, since even though breakthrough infections are real vaccinated people are less likely to contract the virus and less likely to spread it when they do.
On the other hand I sat in regular economy on United Airlines on Sunday, sandwiched into a middle seat, not knowing either the infection or vaccination status of my seatmates. That wasn’t fun and nothing about these rules changes that.