United Airlines has confirmed that it will terminate 593 employees who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19.
United was the first American carrier to institute a vaccine mandate
for all of its domestic employees. They were given a deadline of September 27 to upload proof of their inoculation or face termination by October 2, while those who refuse to get it were terminated outright.
Although airline executives have said that more than 99 percent of their domestic employees did get vaccinated, the rest will be parting ways with the company. Staff who did not comply with the mandate span various roles, including pilots, mechanics and flight attendants.
A memo sent to employees this week stated: “For the less than 1 [percent] of people who decided to not get vaccinated, we’ll unfortunately begin the process of separation from the airline per our policy.”
They characterized it as an “incredibly difficult decision” that is aimed at keeping their team safe, even though vaccinated people are just as capable of passing the disease onto others as those who don't get the jab.
The memo added that people who are applying for exemptions on religious or medical grounds
have had their deadline extended thanks to a pending court case. According to officials with the airline, people applying for these exemptions make up less than three percent of their 67,000-person strong workforce.
They had originally planned to offer an “accommodation” to these employees of unpaid personal leave starting this month, which would cause them to forfeit benefits such as medical coverage. However, six employees have filed a class action lawsuit against the company arguing that their handling of vaccine mandates is a violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Attorneys for the employees involved in the suit announced this week that United agreed to put its plan on hold until October 15, something they applauded as “a victory for employees seeking reasonable accommodations for personal medical conditions.” They added that the original accommodation offered by the airline was simply “termination by another name.” The lawsuit will be heard by a Texas judge October 8.
Jump in employees getting vaccinated as deadline approached
Employees complying with the mandate rose dramatically in the final days before the deadline, with the number of flight attendants who had not yet sent in vaccination cards or received an exemption dropping by about half from the weekend to Monday before falling further to fewer than 100 by Tuesday. This is according to the Association of Flight Attendants representing United's 23,000 cabin crew members.
Meanwhile, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers representing more than 25,000 United employees reported that the more than 500 United workers who had not uploaded their vaccination proof by Monday dropped to less than 400 by Tuesday, while a further 700 had received exemptions. The president of the union's District 141, Mike Klemm, said the union will file wrongful termination grievances should the workers who refused to get vaccinated be fired.
United has said that they are not expecting any operational problems due to the terminations, but a spokesperson for the airline told Reuters that they will be hiring around 25,000 people in the next few years with COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of employment. In addition, they will be requiring that students attending their pilot training school get the vaccine.
They have also said they will work with any unvaccinated employees who change their mind about getting the shot during the termination process. Because their firing is on the grounds of violating a company safety policy, they could be ineligible for unemployment benefits.
While all of the major American carriers have encouraged their employees to get vaccinated
, they have used different approaches, such as offering extra pay or time off as incentives. Most have stopped short of requiring the vaccines
. American Airlines and Alaska Airlines have said that unvaccinated employees must use their own sick time should they miss work because of a COVID-19 infection, while Delta Airlines will be charging a $200 monthly surcharge to unvaccinated employees starting in November on their company healthcare costs.
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