United Airlines is letting unvaccinated employees return to work for the first time in nearly five months in a clear sign that the Chicago-based carrier no longer believes the COVID-19 pandemic “poses a threat to public health”.
Employees who didn’t get vaccinated against COVID-19 but successfully applied for either a religious or medical exemption were allowed to keep their jobs but many in public-facing roles were placed on an indefinite period of unpaid leave because the airline argued it couldn’t offer them an appropriate accommodation.
United Airlines was the first carrier in the United States to issue a vaccine mandate and the airline has achieved a vaccination rate of more than 99 percent amongst eligible employees. Around 67,000 employees based in the United States were covered by the mandate.
At the height of the Omicron outbreak, United’s chief executive Scott Kirby claimed the mandate had dramatically reduced the anticipated numbers of serious illnesses and deaths amongst the airline’s workforce. The COVID hospitalization rate for United workers, Kirby claimed, was 100x lower than the U.S. average.
Around 2,200 employees, however, were granted a religious or medical vaccination exemption, while United fired around 200 workers for failing to get the vaccine or win an exemption.
Around 80 percent of employees who requested a religious exemption had their request approved, while only 63 percent of medical exemptions were granted by the airline.
Many employees who won an exemption were told they would be put on unpaid leave because the airline couldn’t offer them a suitable alternative accommodation. A group of workers filed a lawsuit against United and a Texas judge had granted a temporary restraining order to delay United’s implementation of the policy.
Under United’s policy, which finally came into force in November 2021, workers would only be allowed to return to work once the pandemic no longer posed a serious threat to public health.
A couple of weeks ago, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Dr Rochelle Walensky said high levels of population immunity meant the “overall risk of severe disease is now generally lower”.
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 relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.