United Airlines has announced that it is requiring virtually all of its 67,000 US employees to be vaccinated against the COVID-19 by no later than Oct. 25, or risk termination. The airline was the first major US carrier to announce a vaccination mandate.
The United requirement comes despite the fact that, so far, the COVID-19 vaccines currently available have received only emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. The lack of a fully-approved shot has caused many companies to shy away from mandating vaccination as a condition of employment.
Nevertheless, United is requiring employees to be vaccinated either five weeks after the FDA fully approves a COVID vaccine or by no later than Oct. 25. Reportedly, the FDA is pushing to grant full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine by early September – perhaps as early as Labor Day – with Moderna approval to follow soon after.
Citing what they called “incredibly compelling” evidence of the effectiveness of the vaccines, United CEO Scott Kirby and president Brett Hart said in note to employees that the decision a matter of safety. “The facts are crystal clear: Everyone is safer when everyone is vaccinated.”
Kirby has long been an advocate for vaccination mandate. In January shortly after the vaccines were introduced, the CEO said he wanted to mandate vaccines and that other companies should do the same. “If others go along and are willing to start to mandate vaccines, you should probably expect United to be amongst the first wave of companies that do it,” Kirby said at the time.
Indeed, companies such as Facebook, Walmart and Uber have started to require proof of vaccination for certain categories of workers. However other airlines have not gone so far as to insist on vaccine mandates for all workers, choosing instead to rely on incentives.
While Delta Air Lines and United have started requiring newly hired employees to show proof of vaccination, as far as requiring it for all employees, Delta CEO Ed Bastian told CNBC, “It’s very difficult for us to come in and mandate a vaccine that isn’t even federally approved yet.”
Among United employees, the airline estimates more than 90 percent of pilots and 80 percent of flight attendants have already reported they have been vaccinated. The company did not disclose the overall vaccination rate for its entire workforce.
To clear the vaccination hurdle, employees must provide proof of having got two doses of Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or one dose of Johnson & Johnson’s single dose, either five weeks after the vaccines receive full FDA approval or by Oct. 25, whichever is first.
The airline said exceptions will be made for certain health issues or religious reasons. Further, the requirement does not apply to regional airlines operating for United.
“We know some of you will disagree with this decision to require the vaccine for all United employees,” Kirby told employees. “But, we have no greater responsibility to you and your colleagues than to ensure your safety when you’re at work.”