United Airlines CEO, Scott Kirby, made a statement this week suggesting that he would like to require vaccinations for all employees. Here’s why I doubt United will actually accomplish that.
What CEO Scott Kirby Said
This week, United Airlines CEO, Scott Kirby, stated that he would like the airline to adopt required vaccinations for staff. He was clear in both calling out other CEOs for not instituting a policy and then described how United would be one of the first to follow others if they did so.
“A United spokeswoman confirmed that the company was “strongly considering” making vaccines compulsory, though it isn’t a policy yet.
“I think the right thing to do is for United Airlines, and for other companies, to require the vaccines and to make them mandatory,” Kirby said.
“If others go along and are willing to start to mandate vaccines, you should probably expect United to be amongst the first wave of companies that do it.” – NBC News
Kirby had some additional context to his comments,
“The worst thing that I believe I will ever do in my career is the letters that I have written to the surviving family members of coworkers that we have lost to the coronavirus,” CEO Scott Kirby said at an employee town hall Thursday, a transcript of which was reviewed by CNBC. “And so, for me, because I have confidence in the safety of the vaccine – and I recognize it’s controversial – I think the right thing to do is for United Airlines, and for other companies, to require the vaccines and to make them mandatory.” – TravelPulse
The NBC article above went on to include this precarious statement: “Private U.S. companies can require employees to get vaccinated against Covid-19 but are unlikely to do so because of the risks of legal and cultural backlash, experts have said.”
There is a legal precedent for requiring vaccination with a subset of exemptions. If an exemption is requested, a business has the right to qualify that exemption, and the employee may have to demonstrate their objection on the basis of religion or closely held belief.
“An employee with a religious objection or a disability may need to be excused from the mandate or otherwise accommodated,” noted John Lomax, an attorney with Snell & Wilmer in Phoenix. “Additionally, if an objecting employee is a union-represented employee, the employer may need to bargain and reach an agreement with the union before mandating vaccines.” –SHRM
But for employers to require vaccinations except in the case of religious exemption and closely held beliefs, means that those employers will either accept any exemption, or they will question the person’s motives. The employee may feel persecuted, and in the court of public opinion, an employer that doubts their employee’s motive based on religion or personal beliefs will not be well received.
Some communities have resisted vaccination generally on religious and cultural grounds.
It is also possible that United would impose it on new employees but not existing as adding a condition of hire is more difficult than accepting one when taking a position. Mr. Kirby would have a substantial legal fight on his hands if he required employees to be vaccinated in order to maintain their jobs.
Requiring new airline employees to be vaccinated while existing employees are not, would open the door to a host of additional legal questions – and lawsuits. The flight attendants and pilot unions would likely also weigh-in which could then put those worker groups into legal jeopardy too regardless of whether they go along, or fight the airline on the new policy.
Some have legitimate reasons to want to avoid the COVID-19 vaccine. The CDC has advised against the vaccine for those with allergies, as some deaths have resulted due to allergy complications with the vaccine. Others have low confidence in the safety of the vaccine due to limited testing including essential workers like a surprisingly high number of health care workers. Some hospitals struggle with staff compliance with the flu vaccination as a condition of employment.
Some may not need the vaccine so long as they have functional antibodies. We don’t know, at this time, how long resistance to the virus remains in place. However, the more research that is conducted, the longer the antibodies appear to remain active and effective. How would United Airlines implement a policy that requires a vaccine for a person that doesn’t need it at the time?
Posturing/Virtual Signalling or Genuine?
It’s easy to suggest that everyone should be vaccinated. It sends a clear message of support to newly inaugurated President Joe Biden, as Kirby has been wont to do. His predecessor was also happy to support President Trump too, not necessarily because of his political beliefs but because it’s easier to pledge support to the commander-in-chief than have them as an enemy.
So why say it? Does he just want the world to know where he stands on the issue? Is this posturing and virtue signaling without the consequence of following through? United employee vaccinations are something he can explore, but why call upon other businesses to move first?
In Mr. Kirby’s defense, his sentiments appear to be genuine. But they are also telling. He wants everyone in the industry to require workers to become vaccinated, but he also benefits if they do. If all the other carriers require it, it will be easier for United to defend themselves, allied with its peers. It will also remove legal risk (somewhat) if United is doing what the others are.
He benefits from taking the moral high ground, while not taking action to affect the outcome unless others do it first, it’s a no-lose position but still doesn’t make it any likelier that United itself will make the move.
This feels weak to me. Kirby is outright saying that he wants others to be bold and do something about the problem he feels they all face, but it’s not going to be him who steps up first. It doesn’t feel dissimilar from someone calling out a bully with “Why isn’t anyone doing anything about this” but remaining unwilling to step forth himself and throw the first punch.
United Airlines is my preferred carrier. I like the airline. But this is worse than not having the spine to do something, it’s acting like others are the reason you haven’t. He hasn’t made the vaccine mandatory for employees, because he knows he likely can’t enact it without embroiling the company in costly legal concerns, but he is fine to call out other CEOs for their own inaction.
What do you think? Will United force employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine? Can other American airlines enact this policy? Should they?