- United has the strictest mandate of any U.S. airline and most of the country's companies.
- Some 2,000 of United's 67,000 U.S. staff sought exemptions to the mandate on religious or medical grounds.
- Hundreds of employees uploaded their proof of vaccination shortly before the deadline.
United Airlines said Tuesday that 593 of its employees are facing termination for failing to comply with its Covid-19 vaccination policy, one of the strictest mandates for inoculation from a U.S. company.
More than 96% of United's 67,000-person U.S. workforce complied with the vaccine requirement. The deadline to upload proof of inoculation, or the first shot if receiving a two-dose vaccine, was late Monday.
Roughly 2,000 United employees sought exemptions from the mandate, which the airline announced this summer, for religious or medical reasons. The Chicago-based airline had said staff to whom it grants such exemptions will be placed on temporary unpaid leave.
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"And we know for some, that decision was a reluctant one. But there's no doubt in our minds that some of you will have avoided a future hospital stay — or even death — because you got vaccinated," United's CEO, Scott Kirby, and the company's president, Brett Hart, told employees in a note Tuesday.
Unvaccinated employees without exemptions face termination, though that process could take weeks. "This was an incredibly difficult decision but keeping our team safe has always been our first priority," United's Kirby and Hart said. Staff that didn't upload a proof of vaccine spanned various work groups, such as pilots, flight attendants and mechanics, a spokesman said, declining to provide more detail.
However, a United spokesman said the company is willing to work with some unvaccinated employees during the termination process if they change their mind about getting inoculated. The carrier isn't expecting operational problems because of terminations, the spokesman added.
Employees fired for not getting vaccinated would be terminated on the grounds of violating a company safety policy, which could make them ineligible for unemployment benefits.
Dozens of employees had shared their vaccine cards with the company in the final days before the deadline, CNBC reported earlier Tuesday.
The number of flight attendants who hadn't sent in their vaccination cards and hadn't received an exemption fell by about half from the weekend to Monday and fell further to fewer than 100 on Tuesday, according to the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents the carrier's roughly 23,000 cabin crew members.
More than 500 United employees represented by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers by Monday afternoon had not uploaded proof of vaccination but that dropped to fewer than 400 on Tuesday, according to District 141 President Mike Klemm. The union represents more than 25,000 United employees. Another 700 had received exemptions, he said. The group includes fleet and passenger service workers.
Klemm said the union is planning to file wrongful termination grievances if the workers who refused to be vaccinated are fired.
Six United Airlines employees sued the carrier in federal court in the Northern District of Texas, alleging the company didn't provide them with "reasonable accommodations" for religious or medical reasons. United said it will "continue to vigorously defend our policy."
President Joe Biden earlier this month said his administration plans to mandate that large companies require their employees be vaccinated or have them test regularly for Covid. Airline executives say they are awaiting the specifics.
In January, before Covid-19 vaccines were widely available, CEO Kirby said he wanted to make them mandatory for staff and urged other companies to do the same.
"Just do it," he told CNBC in an interview on Wednesday, when asked his advice to other companies considering making vaccinations a requirement for employees.
All major U.S. carriers have encouraged staff to get vaccinated but have diverged in their approaches, which have included extra pay or time off as an incentive. Most haven't required vaccines.
Delta Air Lines plans to impose in November a $200 monthly surcharge on unvaccinated employees' company health-care costs. Delta, along with Alaska Airlines and American Airlines have said unvaccinated employees will have to use their own sick time if they miss work because of Covid. Hawaiian Airlines said staff must be vaccinated by Nov. 1.
Even if an airline doesn't require vaccines, it could affect where some employees could fly. For example, American Airlines told pilots on Sept. 20 that the governments of Suriname and Canada will require aviators to be vaccinated to work those trips, according to a staff memo. That also applies to flight attendants, according to their union.
American expects more countries will be added to the list.
United since Aug. 1 has required pilots and flight attendants to be vaccinated to fly to certain destinations. It currently includes Brazil, Peru, India, Italy and Iceland among others.
American Airlines and Southwest Airlines pilots' unions have argued that vaccines should remain optional for pilots.
The Allied Pilots Association, which represents American's mainline pilots, last week wrote to the White House, the Transportation Department and key lawmakers asking that pilots be offered an alternative to a federal vaccine mandate.
About 4,200 of of it's some 14,000 pilots aren't vaccinated according to the union. The APA said a federal vaccine mandate could lead to holiday labor shortages and flight disruptions.