United Airlines Is Firing Workers Over Vaccine Noncompliance
About 600 people out of the company’s 67,000-person U.S. work force are set to lose their jobs. The airline said it would work with employees who decide to get vaccinated after the company deadline.
United Airlines is firing employees over noncompliance with its vaccine mandate.
United Airlines said in early August that all employees would be required to provide proof of vaccination.Credit…Chris Helgren/Reuters
Sept. 29, 2021Updated 2:23 p.m. ET
United Airlines said it would terminate about 600 employees for refusing to comply with its vaccination requirement, putting the company at the forefront of the battle over vaccine mandates as the economy moves through a bumpy pandemic recovery.
The airline also said that 99 percent of its U.S. work force of 67,000 had been vaccinated, a sign that mandates can be effective at a corporate level.
More companies have announced vaccine requirements as the government puts increasing pressure on them to help the country increase its inoculation rate. This month, President Biden mandated that all businesses with 100 or more workers require their staff to be vaccinated or face weekly testing, helping propel new corporate vaccination policies.
Some companies have made vaccination compulsory as a condition of work, while others are still trying to encourage their employees with a mix of incentives and deterrents. In August, United Airlines became the first U.S. carrier and one of the first large corporations to issue a vaccine mandate.
“This was an incredibly difficult decision but keeping our team safe has always been our first priority,” Scott Kirby, United’s chief executive, and Brett Hart, its president, said in a memo sent to staff on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, a spokeswoman confirmed that the company had already begun its process to terminate 593 U.S.-based employees who declined to be vaccinated. Workers losing their jobs because of noncompliance with the mandate make up less than 1 percent of the airline’s U.S. work force.
“We will work with folks if during that process they decide to get vaccinated,” the spokeswoman said. United Airlines did not give a timeline for the termination process or a breakdown of the job categories of the fired workers.
United has said that unvaccinated workers can request an exemption based on religious or medical reasons, and that exempt workers will be placed on leave, in many cases unpaid, starting Saturday. The airline postponed the decision to place those workers on leave until Oct. 15, pending a lawsuit filed by six employees, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union said in a statement on Monday.
Any company is within its legal right to require employees to be vaccinated, barring any conflicting disability or religious belief, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has ruled.
“There’s public policy in favor of vaccine mandates, so it’s almost impossible for an employee to argue that it’s against public policy to terminate them as long as the employer provided exemptions on medical an religious grounds,” said Aditi Bagchi, a labor law professor at Fordham University School of Law.
Understand Vaccine and Mask Mandates in the U.S.
Vaccine rules. On Aug. 23, the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and up, paving the way for an increase in mandates in both the public and private sectors. Private companies have been increasingly mandating vaccines for employees. Such mandates are legally allowed and have been upheld in court challenges.Mask rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July recommended that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in indoor public places within areas experiencing outbreaks, a reversal of the guidance it offered in May. See where the C.D.C. guidance would apply, and where states have instituted their own mask policies. The battle over masks has become contentious in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.Schools. Both California and New York City have introduced vaccine mandates for education staff. A survey released in August found that many American parents of school-age children are opposed to mandated vaccines for students, but were more supportive of mask mandates for students, teachers and staff members who do not have their shots. Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and major health systems are requiring employees to get a Covid-19 vaccine, citing rising caseloads fueled by the Delta variant and stubbornly low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their work force.New York City. Proof of vaccination is required of workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances and other indoor situations. On Sept. 27, a federal appeals panel reversed a decision that paused a mandate that teachers and other education workers in the city’s vast school system will need to have at least one vaccine dose, without the option of weekly testing. City hospital workers must also get a vaccine or be subjected to weekly testing. Similar rules are in place for New York State employees.At the federal level. The Pentagon announced that it would seek to make coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops “no later” than the middle of September. President Biden announced that all civilian federal employees would have to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel.
In early August, United announced that all its employees would be required to provide proof of vaccination within five weeks of a vaccine’s full approval by the Food and Drug Administration, or by Oct. 25, whichever came first. The F.D.A. in late August granted full approval to Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and older. At the time, United warned that it would fire employees who did not follow the new policy.
Other airlines have taken different measures to encourage employees to get inoculated. Delta Air Lines announced last month that it was adding a $200 monthly surcharge on its health care plan for employees who were not vaccinated. The company has also said that it requires new employees to be vaccinated, but that existing employees are exempt. American Airlines said it was “not putting mandates in place” for employees or customers.
Other industries are enforcing vaccination requirements. Hospitals across the country have fired health care workers for refusing to comply with vaccination requirements, and in early August, CNN said that it had fired three employees who violated its coronavirus safety protocols by going to the office unvaccinated.