After previously drawing a line in the sand, some US-based airlines have retreated from earlier threats to either fire unvaccinated workers or send them onto unpaid leave. Both Southwest Airlines and American Airlines have softened their position in recent days.
US airlines abiding the Biden vaccination mandate
The Biden Administration wants the employees of federal contractors vaccinated by December 8. All major US airlines are federal contractors and subject to the ruling.
Of the big four carriers, only Delta Air Lines has not yet mandated compulsory COVID vaccinations across its workforce.
United Airlines, American Airlines, and Southwest Airlines have all said their employees must get vaccinated or face the consequences, including termination or unpaid leave.
A raft of smaller airlines, including Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue, Alaska Airlines, Frontier Airlines, and Spirit Airlines, have also adopted similar positions.
Airlines are reporting high employee vaccination levels, but small clusters of unvaccinated employees remain.
“While we are still working through the details of the federal requirements, it is clear that team members who choose to remain unvaccinated will not be able to work at American Airlines,” American Airlines told its employees in an October 1 memo.
“Employees of Southwest Airlines must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, or be approved for a religious, medical, or disability accommodation, by December 8, 2021, to continue employment with the airline,” said Southwest Airlines three days later.
“I respect that you have a different opinion, but you now have a decision to make about whether you want to get vaccinated and stay at United or not,” United’s CEO Scott Kirby told his employees.
United Airlines is announcing a $1,000 bonus for all employees — a thank you for their hard work during the pandemic.
99.7% of the airline’s workforce is vaccinated, which CEO Scott Kirby says is proof that vaccine mandates work. pic.twitter.com/xeUSTOwoxJ
— CBS Mornings (@CBSMornings) October 13, 2021
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Southwest & American backtrack from earlier threats
Since then, both American Airlines and Southwest Airlines have backtracked slightly. Southwest now says it won’t put unvaccinated workers onto ongoing unpaid leave. American Airlines has told the Association of Professional Flight Attendants that its flight attendants won’t face termination or unpaid leave if they are not vaccinated by the December deadline.
According to CNBC, Southwest Airlines will let employees whose exemption request has not been approved by December 8 to keep working if they wear a mask and follow social distancing protocols.
“This is a change from what was previously communicated. Initially, we communicated that these employees would be put on unpaid leave, and that is no longer the case,” says an October 15 memo to employees.
“For those flight attendants who remain unvaccinated and do not receive an accommodation, you will not be automatically removed from service or terminated from employment on the deadline for compliance,” the Association of Professional Flight Attendants told American’s unvaccinated flight attendants on Monday.
Delta swims against the vaccination tide
Both Southwest and American Airlines have seen rallies in Dallas this month by disaffected employees. The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association has asked a court to issue an injunction against the vaccination mandate. Southwest’s management is unimpressed given the US Government – who set the federal contractor vaccination rule – is the airline’s biggest customer.
United Airlines is taking the hardest line. The Chicago-based airline is now terminating 232 US-based employees who chose not to be vaccinated. United Airlines employs some 67,000 people.
Meanwhile, Delta Air Lines, also a federal contractor, is swimming against the tide. They haven’t yet laid down the law on employee vaccinations. However, the airline says over 90% of its US-based workforce is vaccinated and has said its unvaccinated workers will face $200 monthly increases on their health insurance premiums from November 1.
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