United Airlines announced on Wednesday that it will place employees who receive exemptions from its COVID-19 vaccine mandate on temporary leaves of absence beginning next month.
“Given the dire statistics … we can no longer allow unvaccinated people back into the workplace until we better understand how they might interact with our customers and their vaccinated co-workers,” Kirk Limacher, the airline’s vice president of human resources, wrote in a memo obtained by Axios.
Employees with religious exemptions will be placed on voluntary unpaid leave and those with medical exemptions will be placed on temporary medical leave. Both policies will go into effect on Oct. 2 and remain in place until the carrier figures out how to reintegrate them into its workforce.
The leaves will differ based on each employee’s role at United. Customer-facing jobs like pilots, flight attendants and gate agents will not be able to return to work until the “pandemic meaningfully recedes,” the memo said.
If an employee files for a religious or medical exemption and is rejected, they must be inoculated with their first shot of a COVID-19 vaccine by Sept. 27 and be fully vaccinated within five weeks of the denial notice or face termination.
Coronavirus cases have skyrocketed nationwide in recent weeks due to the highly transmissible delta strain, averaging more than 140,000 new cases a day.
In August, United said it would require all of its 67,000 U.S.-based employees to be vaccinated ― the first major airline in the country to do so. Employees were told to be fully vaccinated by Sept. 27, and each person was required to send an image of a vaccine card to the company. Those who failed to do so would be terminated.
The carrier said more than half of its employees who were unvaccinated at the time of the announcement were now fully inoculated, The Washington Post reported.
While some carriers, like Frontier and Hawaiian, have copied United’s policy, others have not. Instead, these airlines are relying on incentives or penalties to persuade employees to get the vaccine. Notably, Delta Air Lines said unvaccinated employees would be required to pay $200 more per month in insurance surcharges and be tested for the coronavirus weekly.
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