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United Airlines COVID vaccination mandate should be emulated – Crain’s Chicago Business

CEOs straddling the fence on COVID-19 vaccination requirements should take a cue from United Airlines.

Chicago-based United is among the minority of U.S. corporations—and the only major airline—requiring all employees to get vaccinated against the virus that has killed nearly 700,000 Americans and wreaked economic havoc over the past year and a half. 

While other corporate bosses fretted over possible employee backlash and settled for half-measures, United’s Scott Kirby understood the need for unequivocal action.

“The facts are crystal clear: Everyone is safer when everyone is vaccinated,” Kirby and United President Brett Hart told employees in August when they announced the vaccination requirement for all United workers who don’t qualify for medical or religious exemptions.

Now the results are just as clear. On Monday, Kirby said 98.5% of United’s 67,000 U.S. workers have been vaccinated. Monday was the deadline for all employees to get at least one dose of the two-shot COVID vaccines or the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

United on Tuesday clarified the figures, explaining that 99% of employees who didn’t seek exemptions were vaccinated. About 3% of workers sought exemptions, United said. That works out to a 96% vaccination rate for the entire workforce. About 600 employees defied the vaccination requirement without requesting an exemption, United said.

United’s success dispels any legitimate concerns about the effectiveness of employee vaccination mandates. The vaccination rate at United far exceeds the 64.4% rate for the general U.S. public. 

Imagine if the entire country had a 98.5% vaccination rate. We’d be resuming normal life, rather than worrying about new waves of infections and economic lockdowns.

It’s not hard to see why United’s mandate has worked so well. Vaccine resistance that’s not grounded in genuine medical risks or religious convictions melts away when refusal carries meaningful consequences. 

And consequences don’t get much more meaningful than losing a job. United said it would fire employees who aren’t vaccinated by the deadline, unless they meet the company’s standards for religious or medical exemptions.

United’s example also should ease the jitters of any CEO who worries that a vaccine requirement would trigger mass resignations by vaccine-wary workers. With 98.5% compliance, it’s clear United has seen no such exodus.

Yes, the vaccine mandate has generated controversy. United was sued last week by employees claiming the company isn’t reasonably accommodating workers who qualify for exemptions. United is  putting exempt employees on temporary leave while it figures out how to bring them back without risking infection.

United should address those concerns, but they shouldn’t deter companies from imposing vaccine requirements. Employees who qualify for exemptions can be treated fairly without allowing others to skip shots.

The vaccine requirement is good for United’s employees, customers and ultimately its bottom line. COVID-19 sent the travel industry into an unprecedented downturn. Airline traffic plunged 92% at the low point and remains well below pre-pandemic levels. The timing of full recovery depends in large part on how quickly the virus recedes.

Increasing the overall vaccination rate is the surest way to accelerate the industry’s comeback. Yet United’s top rivals still hesitate to require employees to get vaccinated. American and Southwest airlines are relying on carrots, such as additional days off or a few extra days of pay for vaccinated workers. Neither will disclose its workforce vaccination rate.

Delta Air Lines is deploying a stick, hitting unvaccinated workers with a $200 monthly health insurance surcharge. Delta also requires new hires to get vaccinated and recently imposed mandatory testing for unvaccinated workers. Spokesman Morgan Durrant says Delta’s vaccination rate has reached 82%.

Of course, all companies with more than 100 employees are subject to President Joe Biden’s recent executive order requiring them to mandate vaccines or regular weekly COVID tests for workers. Hopefully, the order will give more companies cover to impose full vaccine requirements.

Recent data suggests more employers are moving in United’s direction. A survey conducted last month by human resources consulting firm Willis Towers Watson found that 52% of the 961 companies that responded expect to institute some type of vaccine requirement by late this year. 

Unfortunately, the requirements under consideration wouldn’t necessarily apply to all employees. Some would require vaccines only for certain subgroups, while others would require shots only for access to certain areas of a company’s operation. Only 21% are planning or considering a comprehensive requirement that makes vaccination against COVID a condition of employment.

That’s not good enough. COVID-19 is still circulating widely, threatening to spin off new variants potentially more transmissible and lethal than delta. Large segments of the population remain unvaccinated and beyond the reach of any mandate. 

To bring COVID under control, we need to maximize vaccinations wherever possible. United has demonstrated that companies with vaccination requirements can drive inoculation rates close to 100% among employee populations.

It’s time to get off the fence.

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