Etihad Airways has told staffers that refusing to receive a vaccine to protect against COVID-19 will result in a loss of sickness privileges if they go on to either become infected with the novel Coronavirus or are forced to self-isolate because they’re identified as a close contact of someone infected. Vaccination remains voluntary, but Etihad’s new policy is seen as one of the first attempts by a company to influence the choice made by its employees.
“Unvaccinated employees must use annual leave to cover time away from work due to COVID,” a recent internal memo warned Etihad’s Abu Dhabi-based staff. “If you are unvaccinated and test positive for COVID or are identified through close contact tracing, annual leave will be used to cover any time away from work including mandated quarantine periods”.
The memo goes on to warn employees that unpaid leave will have to be used if they don’t have enough paid annual leave to cover their quarantine period. The airline has warned office-based staff that ‘work from home’ will not be permitted during their isolation.
“If you are a vaccinated employee who tests positive, then you will immediately be placed on COVID leave (this is a special leave type which is paid just like annual leave),” the memo continues. Employees identified as a close contact will also be permitted to work from home if their role permits.
Etihad was one of the very first airlines in the world to offer a COVID-19 vaccine to its employees after health authorities in the United Arab Emirates granted the Chinese manufactured Sinopharm vaccine emergency use authorisation in September 2020 for frontline workers. The authorisation was given pending the results of a Phase III trial.
Some of Etihad’s cabin crew and other customer-facing staff were vaccinated before a wider vaccine rollout got underway earlier this year. Etihad chief executive Tony Douglas received his first dose of the Sinopharm vaccine in January and the same vaccine has now been made available to all Etihad staff at the airline’s own healthcare centre.
Etihad did not respond to a request for comment about the new policy and did not answer questions such as how many employees had already been vaccinated and when the airline expected its vaccination campaign to be complete.
In an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 amongst employees, Etihad’s operating cabin crew are already subject to a controversial home quarantine order. Crew members are only allowed to leave their house once per day in order to collect essential supplies or to seek medical treatment.
Emirates Airlines in neighbouring Dubai started its own vaccination drive in mid-January, offering both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Sinopharm vaccines (although the UAE is now facing a supply squeeze on the Pfizer vaccine). The UAE believes it can vaccinate around half of its population by the end of March.
On Monday, Delta chief executive Ed Bastian encouraged his employees in an internal memo to get vaccinated as soon as they were offered the shot, saying that mass vaccination was central to the recovery of the air transport sector. Delta is not believed to have changed any of its workplace policies in relation to vaccination, but Bastian previously hinted that vaccination could be mandatory to work on flights to certain destinations.
United Airlines chief exec, Scott Kirby has, however, allegedly taken a much tougher line, telling employees that vaccination should be mandatory and that the airline was “strongly considering” the idea. Kirby suggested that United would only make vaccination mandatory if other big companies did the same.
U.S.-based airlines are entitled to require vaccination as a condition of employment but such a policy could be legally challenged. Companies could also face a backlash from people who do not believe individual choice should be curtailed.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently used by some of the biggest names in journalism.