White House urges US airlines to urgently mandate vaccines

The White House is urging major U.S. airlines to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for employees by December 8 – the deadline for federal contractors – and shows no signs of postponing the date, four sources told Reuters on Friday.

White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeffrey Zients spoke to the chief executives of American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines on Thursday to ensure they are working expeditiously to develop and enforce vaccine requirements before that deadline, they said the sources on condition of anonymity.

Major US airlines have a number of federal contracts. President Joe Biden signed an executive order last month requiring federal contractors to order COVID-19 vaccinations for employees, with the White House setting a December 8 deadline last week for vaccinations to be completed.

American Airlines said Friday night that more than 100,000 US-based employees are required to get vaccinated, but did not give a date for compliance. It added that employees can apply for a religious or health exemption from vaccination.

“While we are working on the details of the state requirements, it is clear that team members who choose to remain unvaccinated cannot work for American Airlines,” said Chief Executive Doug Parker and President Robert Isom in a memo.

“We understand that this federal mandate can be difficult, but it is what is required of our company and we will keep it.”

Some airline officials had asked the White House to postpone the requests Biden signed last month until after the busy vacation travel season.

Zients urged airlines “to act sooner rather than later to ensure the smoothest possible implementation process,” a source said, making it clear that the White House does not intend to extend the deadline. Zients also urged them to look at United Airlines’ vaccine request announced in August.

The three airlines separately confirmed that the calls took place but declined to discuss the details. Zients did not respond to a request for comment on the calls, which was first reported by Reuters.

“Employers should act now to protect their workforce,” Zients said at a press conference on Friday, without speaking directly about airlines. “More and more companies are committed to making vaccine requirements the standard across industries.”

The Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) is one of the federal contracts for large US airlines. The reserve fleet was activated in August in support of the Pentagon when airlines helped move people evacuated from Afghanistan.

The Biden government told airlines Thursday that it will seek an amendment to CRAF contracts to require vaccinations for airline employees, sources told Reuters. Other government agencies are also expected to request airline contract changes.

WORKFORCE CARE

The Allied Pilots Association, which represents 14,000 pilots who fly for American Airlines, said last week that “mandatory vaccinations could create labor shortages and create serious operational problems for American Airlines and its colleagues”. Some employees at various US companies have quit instead of complying with vaccination regulations.

Two smaller airlines announced Friday that they would be meeting the federal contractor vaccine mandate. JetBlue Airways said it had “communicated these vaccine needs to our crew members”.

Health workers prepare a Covid-19 vaccine at a Clalit temporary health center in Jerusalem on September 30, 2021. (Credit: YONATAN SINDEL / FLASH90)

Alaska Airlines said it would meet federal vaccine requirements for contractors, believing it and other major U.S. airlines are covered by the executive order.

Alaska Airlines said this “means that all of our employees, including certain contractors and suppliers, must be fully vaccinated or approved for reasonable precautions such as medical conditions or religious beliefs that prevent vaccination.”

It added, “The date by which employees must be fully vaccinated has not been confirmed by the government but could be as early as December 8th.”

The Federal Acquisition Regulatory Council, which provides guidance to U.S. agencies on contracts and procurement, issued a memorandum on Thursday to include a clause in their vaccine tenders and contracts. It is expected to issue guidance on exemptions on October 8, sources said.

Separately, the Department of Labor will issue an emergency order affecting more than 80 million private sector workers to require either regular COVID-19 tests or vaccines. This order is expected this month.

Delta said Friday that 84% of its employees are vaccinated and it continues to “evaluate the government’s plan.” Southwest said it “continues to strongly encourage employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.”

United Airlines says 99.5% of its US-based employees have been vaccinated, with the exception of those who requested an exemption. The airline said only 320 U.S.-based employees are in breach of their vaccination guidelines.

United, which in August became the first US airline to require vaccinations for all domestic workers, had asked employees to provide proof of vaccination by Monday, otherwise they could be dismissed.

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