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United Airlines employees who get vaccine exemptions must take temporary leaves, company says

Those whose exemption requests are denied will have until Sept. 27 to get their first shot

A United Airlines passenger pushes a luggage cart past closed check-in kiosks at San Francisco International Airport. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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United Airlines employees who receive religious or medical exemptions from the company’s coronavirus vaccine requirement will be required to take temporary leaves of absence starting next month, company officials said Wednesday.

“Given the dire statistics … we can no longer allow unvaccinated people back into the workplace until we better understand how they might interact with our customers and their vaccinated co-workers,” Kirk Limacher, United’s vice president of human resources, wrote in a memo to employees.

Employees who receive religious exemptions will be put on voluntary unpaid leave, while those who receive medical exemptions will be placed on temporary medical leave, according to the memo. The leaves will begin Oct. 2.

Those whose exemption requests are denied will have until Sept. 27 to get their first shot and must be fully vaccinated within five weeks after receiving word. Employees who don’t meet those conditions will be terminated.

In August, United became the first U.S. airline to require that all U.S.-based employees be vaccinated against the coronavirus. Two other carriers, Frontier and Hawaiian, followed suit.

United becomes the first U.S. airline to require employees to be vaccinated

Other airlines, however, have shied away from mandating the shots, instead banking on incentives that include additional vacation days and bonuses to encourage people to get vaccinated.

United said that more than half the employees who were unvaccinated on the day the company announced the mandate are now vaccinated. The company, however, did not say what percentage of its 67,000 U.S.-based workforce is vaccinated.

In announcing its updated policy, United said it is trying strike a balance between keeping employees and customers safe, while accommodating the religious beliefs and medical needs of those who have sought exemptions. The company said exemptions are being determined on a case-by-case basis, taking into account an employee’s role at United, the metrics of the pandemic and other considerations.

The length of the leaves will depend on the employee’s role at the company, officials said. Those who work directly with customers, such as pilots, flight attendants and gate agents, will return to the job “once the pandemic meaningfully recedes.”

Others, whose jobs don’t bring them in regular contact with customers, will be allowed to return to work once updated safety protocols are put into place, the airline said.

Airline executives have said that a full recovery would not take root until vaccines were widely available and have repeatedly urged the public and their employees to get the shots. Yet even as many Americans rushed to get vaccinated, others have refused. It’s that dynamic that has fueled the new wave of infections that is damping the airline industry’s hope for recovery.

Several carriers, including Southwest Airlines, said it began seeing a decline in bookings in August and that the trend was likely to extend into September.

In recent weeks, some carriers have taken a harder line, announcing policies that reduce benefits for those who refuse to get vaccinated.

Last month, Delta Air Lines announced that employees who aren’t vaccinated will be required to pay a $200 monthly insurance surcharge and will be required to undergo weekly testing. In addition, as of Oct. 1, a coronavirus pay-protection program offered through the company will apply only to breakthrough cases. In May, the airline announced that the vaccine would be required for all new employees.

Delta will require that employees be vaccinated or pay a health insurance surcharge

In a memo outlining his decision, Delta chief executive Ed Bastian noted that the average hospital stay for covid-19 costs the airline $50,000 per person.

“This surcharge will be necessary to address the financial risk the decision to not vaccinate is creating for our company,” he wrote in a memo outlining the new policy. At the time, he said, roughly 75 percent of employees are vaccinated.

Alaska Airlines is offering a $200 bonus to employees who show proof of vaccination by Oct. 15. Already roughly 75 percent of employees at Alaska and its regional carrier, Horizon Air, have been vaccinated, the carrier said. As at Delta, all new employees are required to be vaccinated.

Employees who decline to get vaccinated will have to undergo regular testing, participate in a vaccine-education program, and sign a document laying out safety protocols that must be followed and acknowledging the risks of being unvaccinated. In addition, unvaccinated employees who contract covid-19 will no longer be eligible for a special covid pay program if they are exposed or infected.

American and Southwest airlines are hoping that incentives such as gift cards and extra vacation days will incentivize employees to get vaccinated.

In making their case to employees, United chief executive Scott Kirby and President Bret Hart cited a growing body of data about the effectiveness of the vaccines. They noted that more than 50 medical groups support vaccine requirements, including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Public Health Association.