United firing 232 employees as US airlines grapple with vaccine mandates

United firing 232 employees as US airlines grapple with vaccine mandates
Biden administration requires federal contractor employees be vaccinated

United Airlines is firing hundreds of employees who have refused to get the vaccine against Covid-19, the company’s CEO says as US airlines grapple with state and federal rules on mandates.

In an interview on Wednesday, Scott Kirby told CBS This Morning that 99.7 per cent of the airline’s 67,000 US employees have been vaccinated since the company made it a requirement on 6 August.

Prior to the company’s ruling that workers should get their Covid shots, approximately 90 per cent of pilots and 80 per cent of cabin crew have been vaccinated.

By late September, CNBC reported that just under 600 employees had not got their shots, falling to 320 just two days later as workers updated records under the threat of termination. That number dropped to 232 over the past two weeks.

All of those workers are now being taken through the “termination process” Mr Kirby said.

Some 2,000 employees have sought exemptions for religious or medical reasons. Six of them have filed a class-action suit against the airline claiming they were subjected to intrusive inquiries about medical conditions and religious beliefs.

Based in Chicago, United does not have to worry about conflicting regulations issued by the federal government and certain states.

President Joe Biden mandated employee vaccinations for all federal contractors and for companies with over 100 employees by 8 December, and that includes most airlines.

Since then, Florida has passed a law banning vaccine mandates and has fined Leon County, in which the state capital Tallahassee is located, $3.57m for continuing to require proof of vaccination.

Dozens of other venues, organisations, jurisdictions, and events are under investigation for requiring those present to be vaccinated in order to preserve the safety of others and held stem a further surge in Covid-19 cases.

More directly affecting airlines, is a similar executive order enacted by Texas governor Greg Abbott on Monday that also bans any entity from requiring people to have been vaccinated.

Both American Airlines and Southwest are based out of the state and so far have opted to follow federal action over state rules.

“We’re reviewing all guidance issued on the vaccine and are aware of the recent order by Governor Abbott. According to the president’s executive order, federal action supersedes any state mandate or law, and we would be expected to comply with the president’s order to remain compliant as a federal contractor,” Brandy King, a spokesperson for Southwest, said in a statement to Insider. “We will continue to follow all orders closely and keep our Employees updated on any potential changes to existing policies.”

Similarly, American Airlines told the outlet that they are also reviewing Mr Abbott’s executive order, but for now they “believe the federal vaccine mandate supersedes any conflicting state laws, and this does not change anything for American”.

Both carriers have asked employees to provide proof of vaccination by 24 November. Seattle-based Alaska Airlines and New York-based JetBlue Airways have also told employees that because the carriers are government contractors, they too must be vaccinated by December.

On Tuesday, Southwest’s CEO Gary Kelly vehemently denied speculation that the airline’s mass cancellation of flights over the weekend was due to internal protests about the company’s vaccine mandate.

Mr Kelly insisted the disruption, which saw 2,000 flights cancelled, was due to a traffic management programme imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration that specifically targeted Florida, where many of the carrier’s fleet operates.

Delta Air Lines, based out of Atlanta, said on Wednesday that 90 per cent of its workforce is vaccinated without the company having to mandate employees to get their shots.

CEO Ed Bastian told CNBC’s Squawk Box on Wednesday that he wanted to void a mandate and that the carrier had “done it working collaboratively with our people, trusting our people to make the right decisions for themselves, respecting their decisions, but at the same time avoiding the divisiveness of what the mandate is posing to society”.

He added that he expects Delta’s vaccination rate to rise to 95 per cent by early November.

Frontier Airlines requires unvaccinated employees to provide regular proof of a negative Covid-19 test, but CEO Barry Biffle said in August that “the good news is that the vast majority of our employees have already taken this important step and have gotten vaccinated.”