United Airways CEO needs Covid vaccines to be necessary for workers

A health care professional wears personal protective equipment (PPE) during a United Airlines Covid-19 test pilot program at Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark, New Jersey, the United States, on Monday, November 16, 2020.

Angus Mordant | Bloomberg | Getty Images

United Airlines CEO wants Covid-19 vaccines to be mandatory for employees and encourages other companies to do the same.

This attitude is different from other airlines and companies in other sectors such as retail and auto manufacturing.

“The worst thing I think I’ll ever do in my career are the letters I wrote to the surviving family members of employees we lost to the coronavirus,” CEO Scott Kirby said Thursday in an employee’s town hall, a transcript of which has been verified by CNBC. “Because I have confidence in the safety of the vaccine – and I recognize this is controversial – I think it is right for United Airlines and other companies to require the vaccines and make them mandatory.”

United had more than 60,000 active U.S. employees as of late 2020 and has sent recall notifications to around 17,000 other workers whose jobs were cut last year.

Kirby acknowledged the logistical challenges of vaccinating staff.

Airline employees are considered important workers and will likely receive the vaccine in front of many people. But the rollout so far has been slow and chaotic as the nation ran after the goals.

Airline executives have said widespread vaccination will help revive demand for air travel as airlines grapple with losses running into billions.

“I don’t think United can get away with it and realistically be the only company that needs vaccines and makes them mandatory,” he said. “We need some others. We need some others to show leadership. Especially in the healthcare industry.”

The staff note said it is working with government officials and health care providers to set up vaccine distribution centers at some of its major hubs.

Some employees have been reluctant to take vaccines.

“It’s certainly a touchy subject,” said Michael Klemm, president of the International Association of Engineers and Aerospace Workers, District 141, who represents United’s fleet and passenger services staff, in an email. “We have received some frustrations from members who do not want to take the vaccine and concerns from members who do not want to work with someone who is not taking it.”

Klemm said the union members could file a complaint about disciplinary measures resulting from their refusal to be vaccinated. If they refuse to be vaccinated because of a religious belief or disability, they can file complaints with the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

United Flight Attendants’ union, the Association of Flight Attendants, said its focus is on ensuring vaccine access for crew members.

“Right now, flight attendants are at different levels of access in each state,” AFA spokeswoman Taylor Garland said in a statement. “We need a federal approach that prioritizes flight attendants as the essential workforce that facilitates international trade.”

Other airlines have not announced plans to prescribe vaccines.

Southwest Airlines said last week that it “currently” does not require employees to receive Covid-19 vaccines, but has strongly encouraged employees to do so.

American Airlines is taking a similar approach, and announced to staff last week, “We do not plan to require our team members to receive the vaccine unless vaccinations are ultimately required to travel to specific destinations.”

Meanwhile, Delta Air Lines said it is “working actively with all states to understand how Delta employees are prioritized in the initial distribution of vaccines.”

The Atlanta-based airline has encouraged employees to get vaccinated. On Wednesday, the company told flight attendants that their pay would be protected if they responded to a vaccine that prevented them from working and that they would receive an additional six hours of pay after receiving the second dose of the vaccine as seen by CNBC.

United in a staff note this week urged employees to get vaccinated as soon as possible and not wait for guidance from the airline.

Some companies are trying to convince workers to get the vaccine by offering additional wages. Yogurt and food company Chobani said it will give employees in its manufacturing facilities and offices up to six hours of paid time to get the two vaccinations.

So far, some retailers like Aldi, Lidl and Dollar General have announced similar plans to offer additional payment. Aldi said it would also like to open on-site vaccination clinics in its warehouses and offices to make it easier for workers to get the shots and remove the barriers to childcare or finding transportation.

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