Alaska Airlines will not require its existing employees to be vaccinated or fine them for choosing to forgo the jab. However, those employees will be subject to “regular” testing and other restrictions. In leaving it up to employee, is Alaska taking a courageous position or a cowardly one?
Alaska Airlines Takes Cautious Approach To Employee Vaccinations
In one corner are carriers like United Airlines and Frontier which require all employees to be vaccinated. With full FDA authorization granted for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine (now known as Comirnaty), United employees have until September 27th to be fully vaccinated of face termination.
On the other end, American Airlines has encouraged its employees to get vaccinated, but left it totally up to them with no mandate or even testing requirements.
Between the two, Delta Air Lines will not require existing employees to be vaccinated, but will fine them $200/month if they take part in company-sponsored healthcare and withhold COVID pay if they contract COVID-19 and are not vaccinated.
Alaska Airlines is taking a slightly different approach. Employees who choose not to vaccinated will:
- face “regular” mandatory testing
- participate in a vaccine education program
- not receive special COVID pay
Employees who are vaccinated will receive a $200 bonus. Furthermore, all new hires must be vaccinated.
One Mile At A Time calls the policy “disappointing” and asks:
“I don’t really get the message that Alaska Airlines is trying to send here either. The company states it’s committed to protecting employees and guests, agrees vaccination is the best way to do that, the vaccine now has full approval, yet the airline won’t require vaccination? I don’t understand the disconnect here…”
Those are reasonable concerns and his logic is sound. I think the missing issue is the litigation that Alaska does not want to deal with. U.S. federal law actually leaves room for tremendous personal autonomy when it comes to vaccines and religious exemptions need only be sincere, not even necessarily reasonable or proven through past practice.
During the pandemic, we have seen certain churches push back against neutrally-applicable restrictions to gathering on the grounds that it violates the First Amendment free exercise clause. Los Angeles County has spent millions of dollars paying legal fees for churches its sued to stop indoor worship during the pandemic. The Supreme Court has said to stay “hands off” religion. My hunch is that the same legal logic will be applied to employer-initiated vaccine mandates for those who push back on religious grounds.
(In that sense, I think United is eventually going to roll over to employees who refuse even on vague religious grounds or face many lawsuits.)
Thus, I don’t see the Alaska position as courageous as much as it is realist and practical. That said, I do think that Delta’s policy has a lot more teeth while still falling within the current First Amendment jurisprudence.
Alaska Airlines will only hire new employees who are vaccinated and will subject current employees who refuse the COVID-19 to regular testing. While such a policy appears weak for an airline that voices full support for the vaccine, it likely recognizes the practical legal boundaries that we are only beginning to see.
image: Alaska Airlines