United Airlines Wants the COVID-19 Vaccine to Be Mandatory for Employees, according to CEO Scott Kirby in an employee town hall on January 21, 2021. To date, United is the first U.S. airline to suggest that the COVID-19 vaccine may be mandatory for its staff, although airlines such as Qantas may make the vaccine mandatory for passengers, with exceptions for those with medical conditions that preclude vaccination. In Qantas' customer research, 89% of those surveyed supported a vaccination requirement.
The U.S., of course, is not Australia, either in attitudes to vaccination or the logistical challenges of potentially vaccinating over 325,000 Americans, vs. 25,000 Australians.
CEO Kirby stated “The worst thing that I believe I will ever do in my career is the letters that I have written to the surviving family members of coworkers that we have lost to the coronavirus…I have confidence in the safety of the vaccine – and I recognize it’s controversial – I think the right thing to do is for United Airlines, and for other companies, to require the vaccines and to make them mandatory.”
Kirby is right to be concerned that just leaving vaccination up to employees may result in rather dismal vaccination rates. Even in NYC, which was hard hit in March-April and is again facing surging cases in many neighborhoods in Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens, about 30% of health care workers have declined to be vaccinated. The numbers are even higher in other states: reportedly 60% of nursing home staff in Ohio have declined to be vaccinated. For some, the reluctance reflects a significant erosion of trust in government and in employers over the past years, in some cases combined with historical injustice, such as the unethical Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which was conducted in the 1930s on 600 African Americans without their informed consent.
As a practical matter, United Airlines and other employers are required by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commisssion (EEOC) to show that the mandatory vaccine requirement is “job related and consistent with business necessity” for each role that the employer requires mandatory vaccination for. It can be a lengthy process to fully explore whether reasonable accommodation can be made to allow the employee to continue working, to show that an unvaccinated employee poses a “direct threat” that causes a “significant risk of substantial harm to the health and safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation” and so forth. This is why so many U.S. employers aren't planning to make vaccination mandatory, and are instead simply strongly encouraging employees to get vaccinated and providing money to cover the time a employer is away from work to get the shots.
It will be interesting to see if any other airlines join United in seeking to make vaccination mandatory for their employees (at time of writing, no U.S. airline has suggested making vaccination mandatory for passengers).
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