United Airlines has revealed it is spending US$1.4 million per fortnight sending unvaccinated pilots onto paid leave because vaccinated co-workers refuse to fly with them. The airline confirmed the amount in a Federal Court filing in Texas last Friday.
United’s hardline vaccination stance
According to a Bloomberg report, some vaccinated United workers refuse to risk their safety working alongside unvaccinated United employees. United is fighting a court case in Texas brought by a small band of unvaccinated employees resisting the airline’s vaccine mandate.
In early August, United went onto the front foot and announced all 67,000 US-based employees would need to get vaccinated to keep working. The airline said it would consider exemptions on medical or religious grounds on a case-by-case basis.
United’s deadline was towards the end of September. Around 3% of the workforce applied for exemptions, and a further 1% refused to get vaccinated. The group of refuseniks quickly shrunk to about 0.5% once United began terminating their employment.
The White House backed the airline’s hardline stance after President Biden said all federal contractors (which include the major US airlines) employing more than 100 people would need to vaccinate their workforce to retain US Government business.
United wants no more restaining orders
United planned to send many of its exempt workers onto unpaid leave. But six workers affiliated with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Union who had applied for exemptions began legal action against United to prevent this.
Earlier this month, Federal Judge Mark Pittman issued a restraining order preventing United from putting the workers on unpaid leave. That restraining order was valid until October 26.
In a filing on Friday, United Airlines asked the court not to extend the restraining order. The airline cited the $1.4 million fortnightly cost and said it was unlikely to recover the money even if it won the case.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs say United should not be telling vaccinated employees the vaccination status of their co-workers. They say a generic style statement from the airline – that the risk of catching COVID-19 on a plane is “almost zero” regardless of vaccination status – should suffice.
While US-based airlines are largely on board with the vaccine mandate, United Airlines has led the pack. They were the first airline to make employee vaccinations compulsory and have remained the firmest in the face of any employee resistance.
“I will look back at this, and it will be one of the proudest moments of my career that we’ve made the tough decision, but the right decision to require vaccines,” said United CEO Scott Kirby earlier this month.
Get your boarding pass to the flight of the year. The Future Flying Forum is taking off soon!
United Airlines will stay the course on vaccinations
Both American Airlines and Southwest Airlines have backed down recently in the face of employee and union anger over threats of termination and unpaid leave for unvaccinated workers, but United isn’t wavering.
Since late September, the number of United Airlines who have refused a vaccination and not requested an exemption has dropped from around 600 to under 300. But the fate of United’s workers who gain exemptions remains uncertain.
The six workers want to remain on the payroll for as long as United sends them on leave, but United says the long-term financial costs are simply too high.
United Airlines says they will defend the Texas court case, and that the outcome will have no bearing on its decision to terminate employees who refuse to get vaccinated without a valid reason.