United Welcomes Back Unvaxxed Employees, Citing COVID ‘Endemic Phase’

United Welcomes Back Unvaxxed Employees, Citing COVID ‘Endemic Phase’
Photo: Anadolu Agency, Getty Images

United Airlines, once the aviation industry’s leading figure in vaccine requirements, has given up on its goal of a completely vaccinated workforce.

Starting March 28, unvaccinated United employees previously granted religious or medical exemptions to the company’s inoculation mandate will be allowed to return to work, according to an internal memo shared with Gizmodo. Under United’s previous policy, around 2,200 of these workers had been moved to non-customer-facing roles or put on unpaid leave. The Wall Street Journal and Reuters first reported the memo.

In the memo, United Vice President of Human Resources Kirk Limacher said the decision to welcome back unvaccinated employees comes as the omicron variant “shows clear signs of receding.” Limacher added United that was evolving its policies in part to “reflect the broader shift to the endemic stage of the pandemic.” The decision also comes as the U.S. nears the grim milestone of one million recorded deaths from the virus.

“We expect COVID case counts, hospitalizations, and deaths to continue to decline nationally over the next few weeks, and, accordingly, we plan to welcome back those employees who have been out on an approved RAP to their normal positions starting on Monday, March 28,” Limacher said. “Of course, if another variant emerges or the COVID trends suddenly reverse course, we will reevaluate the appropriate safety protocols at that time.”

United was the first major U.S. airline to require vaccines for employees last August and has publicly praised vaccines repeatedly. At the time of the mandate, United’s CEO Scott Kirby and President Brett Hart said in a memo they would move forward with the requirement despite significant opposition from some employees because doing so was “the right thing to do.”

Under that policy, employees granted religious or medical exemptions to opt-out of the vaccine were either put on indefinite unpaid leave or given the option to work in non-customer-facing roles. As of late last year, United said about 96% of its workers were vaccinated, CNBC notes. Other major airlines like Southwest and Americans said they had planned to follow United’s lead ahead of vaccine requirements for federal contractors but ultimately ended up backing off.

A spokesperson for Delta Airlines told Gizmodo the company was not planning on changing it vaccination rules and said its avoided implementing any vaccine mandate thus far. Instead, the spokesperson said the company relied on a a variety of incentives and an additional health care benefit plan surcharge of $US200 ($278) per month. The spokesperson credited that surcharge with helping increase the company’s employee vaccination rate from around 75% to 98%. Unvaccinated employees were also subject to weekly testing and masking. Gizmodo reached out to Southwest and American Airlines about changes to own vaccination policies as well, but we’ve yet to hear back from them.

United employees opposed to its policy filed a lawsuit against the company last year claiming the company’s decision to place certain employees on extended unpaid leave for refusing to receive vaccination could cause them irreparable harm. The case is still making its way through the courts.

United’s decision to welcome back its unvaccinated workforce marks a tonal shift for the company, which continued to espouse the benefits of an overwhelmingly vaccinated workforce as recently as January. In a LinkedIn post, Kirby praised the company’s vaccine requirement claiming none of its employees had died or been hospitalized even as positive omicron cases amongst vaccinated employees skyrocketed. “Our vaccine requirement is working — and saving lives,” Kirby said.

The same can’t be said for some unvaccinated employees. In the recent memo, United said Covid infections led to the deaths of five workers who were on an approved request for reasonable accommodation.

“All loss of life is tragic but at United, our vaccinated employees have been significantly less likely to lose their lives to COVID,” Limacher said.

You can read United’s full memo below.