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United Airlines Says Almost All Its Workers Are Vaccinated; Some Others May Be Fired

United Airlines pilot Steve Lindland receives a COVID-19 vaccine at O'Hare International Airport.
Scott Olson
Getty Images
United Airlines pilot Steve Lindland receives a COVID-19 vaccine at O'Hare International Airport.

Updated September 28, 2021 at 9:15 PM ET

United Airlines is touting the success of its COVID-19 vaccine mandate, saying that more than 99% of its U.S.-based employees have met the company's requirement to get vaccinated, or have applied for a religious or medical exemption.

But the fewer than 600 United employees who did not get vaccinated by the airline's deadline of Sept. 27 now face termination.

"This is a historic achievement for our airline and our employees as well as for the customers and communities we serve," United CEO Scott Kirby and president Brett Hart said in a memo to employees. "Our rationale for requiring the vaccine for all United's U.S.-based employees was simple — to keep our people safe — and the truth is this: everyone is safer when everyone is vaccinated, and vaccine requirements work."

United announced August 6 that the Chicago-based airline was requiring all 67,000 of its U.S.-based employees to be vaccinated. At the time, the airline said about 90% of pilots and 80% of flight attendants had already been vaccinated.

Seven weeks later, United says about 2,000 workers, less than 3% of the U.S.-based workforce, have applied for a religious or medical accommodation. Those workers had faced being put on an unpaid leave of absence Oct. 2, but the airline has pushed back that date while a federal lawsuit challenging that policy works its way through the courts.

United says 593 employees have not been vaccinated nor have they applied for an exemption.

"For the less than 1% of people who decided to not get vaccinated, we'll unfortunately begin the process of separation from the airline per our policy," Kirby and Hart told employees in the memo.

Their letter thanks "the tens of thousands of employees who got their shot," adding "we know for some, that decision was a reluctant one. But there's no doubt in our minds that some of you will have avoided a future hospital stay - or even death - because you got vaccinated."

United announced it would require employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine on Aug. 6, weeks before President Biden's sweeping vaccine mandate. Hawaiian and Frontier Airlines also require employees to be vaccinated.

Delta Air Lines did not mandate vaccines, but announced in August it will begin charging unvaccinated employees a $200 monthly health insurance surcharge.

Since then, Biden ordered all U.S. companies with more than 100 workers to require employees to be vaccinated or frequently tested for COVID. But the unions for pilots at Southwest and American Airlines are asking the White House to exempt pilots from the mandate.

The Allied Pilots Association says about 30% of American's 14,000 pilots have not gotten shots and warns that mass terminations of unvaccinated pilots could lead to a severe shortage of pilots during the busy November and December holiday season.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.