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United Airlines CEO On The Decision To Put Unvaccinated Employees On Leave In October

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The friendly skies of United Airlines are working to be the coronavirus-free skies. They were the first U.S. airline to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for its employees. And yesterday, United said that they will put their unvaccinated employees on temporary leave starting October 2. To talk about how all of this is working, we're joined now by the CEO of United Airlines, Scott Kirby.

Welcome.

SCOTT KIRBY: Thank you, Ailsa.

CHANG: So let's start with vaccines because the Biden administration just announced yesterday vaccine mandates for federal workers and for private companies with more than 100 employees. So I wanted to ask you, does that recent Biden administration announcement help you or give you cover for your own vaccine mandate which was announced back in early August?

KIRBY: Well, it really doesn't impact what we were doing in any way. I'm encouraged to see the president taking this step, but we did it because it was just the right thing to do. And because of that, we were comfortable doing it a month ago. And by the end of this month, we will have all of our employees vaccinated.

CHANG: Well tell me, how has your vaccine mandate been working so far? I'm curious about, like, what percentage of United employees have in fact complied since the announcement back in August?

KIRBY: Well, well over 50% of our unvaccinated employees have already been vaccinated.

CHANG: And the 50% of unvaccinated people who have since complied with the mandate, roughly, do you know the breakdown between customer-facing employees and non-customer-facing?

KIRBY: Well, our customer-facing employees were already at much higher levels. So the largest increases have been on the ramp and in our technical operations group, but that's only because they started with the lowest vaccination rate.

CHANG: OK. Well, for those employees who remain unvaccinated, some of them are getting exemptions - right? - from the vaccine mandate, either medical exemptions or religious exemptions.

KIRBY: That's right.

CHANG: Employees who are granted one of these accommodations will still have to go on leave starting October 2. Let me ask you, is that paid or unpaid leave?

KIRBY: So for all of our employees that have either a religious or a medical exemption that cannot be accommodated in the workplace, they'll go on unpaid leave. It varies by work group. But for customer-facing employees, those employees will be on unpaid leave until the risk of COVID is low enough that we deem it safe. And for other groups, there will be testing requirements that'll be put in place, but it's likely that they will be on unpaid leave for some period of time while we work out all the details, the logistics of the testing requirements and make sure that those testing requirements conform to their collective bargaining agreements.

CHANG: Practically speaking, though, I mean, no matter your efforts with vaccinating your employees, they are way outnumbered by all the passengers who board your planes. Are there plans to mandate vaccinations for passengers or require proof of vaccination before they can board your planes, I mean, just in fairness to your employees?

KIRBY: I think that mandating vaccines for passengers is really a government issue. For us to do that, we would probably require some sort of government directive. We have prepared ourselves with technology to be able to upload vaccine cards and track that and implement it if the government ever chooses to go in that direction.

CHANG: Well, I mean, there are certain bars in this country that are mandating vaccination before people can come into the bar. Broadway is mandating vaccines. Why is it up to the government to mandate vaccines when it comes to airlines, but not in those other cases?

KIRBY: Well, we're, you know, a federally regulated industry. And, you know, people are in terminals. They're not just our customers. So you go through a security checkpoint, it's to all airlines. It's TSA employees. It's employees at the airport. And so that's just an environment where I don't think it's appropriate for us as an individual business to make that decision and really one that we would need the federal government to take the lead on.

CHANG: Scott Kirby is the CEO of United Airlines.

Thank you so much for your time today.

KIRBY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.