Workers want Covid vaccinations underneath federal guidelines
A Boeing 737-990 (ER) operated by Alaska Airlines takes off from JFK Airport on August 24, 2019 in Queens, New York.
Bruce Bennett | Getty Images
American Airlines, Alaska Airlines and JetBlue Airways told their employees that their work as government contractors means they must be vaccinated against Covid-19 as early as December 8 under new federal rules.
President Joe Biden last month announced sweeping vaccine or regular testing requirements for employees of private companies with more than 100 workers to help curb the spread of Covid.
In addition to requirements for private companies, his administration issued stricter vaccination requirements for federal contractors. Those include accommodations only for staff granted exemptions for medical or religious reasons. Major airlines say they fall into the federal contractor category because they transport government employees and provide other services like the emergency flights that helped bring Afghanistan evacuees to the U.S. this summer.
Last week, the Biden administration said federal contractors would need to be vaccinated no later than Dec. 8. All three airlines said there will be an approval process for medical and religious exemptions.
“As a result, the federal vaccine mandate requires that all of American’s U.S.-based team members and certain international crew members be vaccinated, without the provision of a regular testing alternative,” American Airlines CEO Doug Parker and its president, Robert Isom, wrote in a note to staff late Friday.
“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.”
JetBlue told staff that “regardless of working in the operation, a support center, or at home – will be required by the government to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 to continue performing their role,” JetBlue’s CEO Robin Hayes and COO Joanna Geraghty said in an employee email, which was seen by CNBC, on Friday.
Geraghty told CNBC this week that the “vast majority” of its employees are vaccinated but said the exact percentage wasn’t immediately clear.
The JetBlue executives urged staff to get vaccinated before the busy end-of-year holiday season.
“Our customers count on us to get them where they’re going during the holidays, and we need to be ready to fully comply with the mandate before the holiday peak starts and to help bring this pandemic to a close,” they said.
Seattle-based Alaska, New York-based JetBlue and Fort Worth, Texas-based American haven’t mandated that staff be vaccinated but they have repeatedly encouraged employees to get inoculated. Alaska has offered extra pay to those who share proof of vaccination with the company. American offered extra time off and $50 to many of its employees who get vaccinated.
“Since our company does significant work for the federal government, we have determined that Alaska Airlines, Horizon Air and McGee employees – all part of Alaska Air Group – do fall under this federal vaccine mandate, along with other major U.S. airlines,” Alaska said Thursday in a staff note. “This means all of our employees, including certain contractors and vendors, will be required to be fully vaccinated, or be approved for a reasonable accommodation such as medical conditions or religious beliefs that prevent them from being vaccinated.”
CNBC saw a copy of the note. A spokeswoman for Alaska Airlines told CNBC a “significant majority” of the airline’s roughly 22,000 employees are vaccinated, but she declined to give a percentage, noting that staff is still uploading proof of vaccination.
Alaska extended its $200 incentive for staff to upload proof of full vaccination from October 15 to December 1.
Airlines’ approaches to vaccines have differed, but most haven’t issued mandates and instead used incentives like extra pay or time off for employees to get shots.
Some labor unions have also opposed making vaccines mandatory such as those representing pilots at American and Southwest Airlines. Both of those carriers previously said they expected that the new federal vaccine mandates would apply to them. Southwest didn’t comment for this article.
The Allied Pilots Association, which represents American’s roughly 14,000 pilots, last week wrote to the Biden administration and key lawmakers asking for alternatives to the mandate, such as regular Covid or antibody testing. The union said some of American’s pilots were “reluctant to get vaccinated based upon concerns about the potential for career-ending side effects” and warned the mandate could create labor shortages and disrupt holiday travel.
After American’s note to staff on Friday, APA told its members that the airline must negotiate with the union for the “implementation and effects of a mandatory vaccination requirement on our pilots.”
United Airlines imposed the strictest mandate of any U.S. carrier, requiring its 67,000-person U.S. staff to be vaccinated by last Monday or face termination. More than 96% complied and by Thursday 320 employees were at risk of getting fired, down from 593 when the deadline passed this week, the Chicago-based carrier said.
Delta Air Lines plans to impose a $200 monthly surcharge on unvaccinated employees’ company health insurance starting in November. Unvaccinated employees are now undergoing weekly Covid testing, Delta said.
“While we continue to evaluate the Administration’s plan, Delta is proud to have developed a vaccination program that has already seen 84% of employees get vaccinated and is climbing every day,” the Atlanta-based airline said in a statement.
Delta has close to 80,000 employees.