United Airlines to put employees granted Covid-19 vaccine exemptions on unpaid leave and fire workers who refuse the jab

Employees who receive religious, medical or personal exemptions from the Covid-19 vaccine mandate will still be placed on unpaid or medical leave indefinitely, the Chicago-based United Airlines has announced.

“Once the pandemic meaningfully recedes, you will be welcomed back to the team on active status,” pilots, flight attendants and customer service agents – described as employees in “operational customer-facing roles” – were told in a company memo sent out on Wednesday, as cited by the Associated Press and other media outlets.

Employees not directly interacting with passengers, such as dispatchers and mechanics, who have been approved for exemption will be required to get tested weekly and wear a mask at all times when at work, including when outdoors.

Anyone granted a medical exemption will be put on temporary medical leave. Those whose request for exemption is denied will have to take the first shot by September 27 and be fully vaccinated within five weeks or lose their job altogether, according to the memo sent out by VP of human resources Kirk Limacher.

Employees who refuse the vaccine will not be allowed into the workplace after October 2.

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Media outlets that reported on Limacher’s memo haven’t specified how willing United would be to actually grant requests for exemption, and the airline hasn’t said how many it has received.

United was the first US airline to impose a Covid-19 vaccine mandate on its 67,000-plus employees, in early August. Other airlines have moved to end pay protections for unvaccinated employees who test positive for the virus. Georgia-based Delta Airlines has slapped a $200 surcharge on the healthcare premiums of employees who haven’t been vaccinated.

Companies and government agencies are legally required to offer exemptions on religious or medical grounds, though not to actually grant them. The Biden administration has pushed for public and private vaccination mandates as the number of Covid-19 cases in the US has risen over the summer. 

Airlines, and pilot and flight attendant unions have eagerly embraced the apparently indefinite extension of the government’s mask mandate, originally imposed in February and intended to last 100 days.

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United is the fourth-largest US airline by the number of passengers carried, but has the second-largest fleet and serves the most destinations, according to pre-pandemic statistics.

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