Staff want Covid vaccinations in response to federal laws

An Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-990 (ER) takes off from JFK Airport in Queens, New York on August 24, 2019.

Bruce Bennett | Getty Images

American Airlines, Alaska Airlines and JetBlue Airways told their employees that due to their work as state contractors, they will need to be vaccinated against Covid-19 as early as December 8 under new federal regulations.

President Joe Biden last month announced extensive vaccine or regular testing requirements for employees of private companies with more than 100 employees to help contain the spread of Covid.

In addition to the requirements for private companies, its administration issued stricter vaccination regulations for federal contractors. This includes accommodation only for employees who have been granted exemptions for medical or religious reasons. Major airlines say they fall into the federal contractor category because they transport government employees and offer other services like the emergency flights that helped bring Afghan evacuees to the US this summer.

Last week the Biden administration said federal contractors would need to be vaccinated no later than December 8th. All three airlines said there would be an approval process for medical and religious exemptions.

“As a result, the federal vaccination mandate requires that all US-based American team members and certain international crew members be vaccinated without providing a regular test alternative,” American Airlines CEO Doug Parker and President Robert Isom wrote in a press release the staff on late Friday.
“While we are still working on the details of the state requirements, it is clear that team members who choose to remain unvaccinated cannot work at American Airlines.”

Vacation trip

JetBlue announced to employees that “regardless of work on the premises, at a support center or at home – the government is required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to continue performing their role,” said JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes and COO Joanna Geraghty in an employee email that CNBC saw on Friday.

Geraghty told CNBC this week that the “vast majority” of its employees have been vaccinated, but said the exact percentage is not immediately clear.

JetBlue executives urged employees to get vaccinated before the busy year-end holiday season.

“Our clients rely on us to get them where they are going during the vacation and we need to be ready to fully comply with the mandate before the holiday peak begins and help end this pandemic,” they said.

Seattle-based Alaska, New York-based JetBlue, and Fort Worth, Texas-based American have not mandated vaccination for employees, but they have repeatedly encouraged employees to get vaccinated. Alaska has offered additional payment to those who share proof of vaccination with the company. American offered extra time and $ 50 to many of its vaccinated employees.

“Because our company does significant work for the federal government, we have determined that employees of Alaska Airlines, Horizon Air, and McGee – all part of the Alaska Air Group – along with other major US airlines are covered by this federal immunization mandate,” Alaska said Thursday in a staff note. “This means that all of our employees, including certain contractors and suppliers, must be fully vaccinated or approved for reasonable precautions such as medical conditions or religious beliefs that prevent vaccination.”

CNBC saw a copy of the note. An Alaska Airlines spokeswoman told CNBC that a “substantial majority” of the airline’s approximately 22,000 employees were vaccinated, but she declined to give a percentage as employees were still uploading proof of vaccination.

Alaska extended its $ 200 employee incentive to upload full vaccination records from October 15 through December 1.

Airlines’ approaches to vaccines have varied, but most have not issued mandates and instead used incentives such as extra pay or time off for employees to get injections.

Some unions have also spoken out against making vaccines mandatory, such as those that represent pilots at American and Southwest Airlines. Both carriers previously said they expected the new federal vaccination regulations to apply to them. Southwest did not comment on this article.

The Allied Pilots Association, which represents the approximately 14,000 American pilots, wrote to the Biden administration and important legislators last week asking for alternatives to the mandate, such as regular Covid or antibody tests. The union said some of the American pilots were “reluctant to get vaccinated because of concerns about possible career-ending side effects,” warning that the mandate could create labor shortages and disrupt vacation travel.

Following American announcements to staff on Friday, the APA told its members that the airline needed to negotiate with the union on the “implementation and implications of mandatory vaccination for our pilots”.

United’s mandate

United Airlines has imposed the strictest mandate of all US airlines, according to which their 67,000-strong US staff must be vaccinated by last Monday or face dismissal. More than 96% stuck to it, and 320 employees faced layoffs by Thursday, up from 593 when the deadline passed this week, the Chicago-based airline said.

Delta Air Lines plans to add a $ 200 monthly surcharge to company health insurance for unvaccinated employees beginning in November. Unvaccinated employees are now having weekly Covid tests, Delta said.

“As we continue to evaluate the government’s plan, Delta is proud to have developed a vaccination program that has seen 84% of its employees vaccinated and increasing every day,” the Atlanta-based airline said in a statement.

Delta has nearly 80,000 employees.

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