Inside United Airlines’ Decision to Mandate Coronavirus Vaccines – The New York Times
Then, shortly after Mr. Kirby’s decision a few weeks later, the airline began informing the two unions that it would impose the mandate in early August. Employees would have to be vaccinated by Oct. 25 or within five weeks of a vaccine’s formal approval by the Food and Drug Administration, whichever came first. The timing was intended to ensure that the airline had adequate staffing for holiday travel, said Kate Gebo, who heads human resources.
“For those 92 percent of pilots who wanted to be vaccinated, we captured $45 million in cash incentives,” said Captain Insler, whose union is challenging the decision to fire employees who don’t comply. “For those who did not want to be vaccinated, we were able to hold off a mandate for several months.”
The company hadn’t surveyed its workers, but estimated that 60 to 70 percent were already vaccinated. Getting the rest there wouldn’t be easy.
Margaret Applegate, 57, a 29-year United employee who works as a services representative in the United Club at San Francisco International Airport, helps illustrate why.
Her daughter urged her to get vaccinated, but she remained deeply ambivalent. Friends and co-workers “were feeding me stories about horrible things happening to people with the vaccine,” she said. She worried about the relatively new technology behind the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and whether her heart condition could pose complications, though her cardiologist assured her it wouldn’t.
For months, United had encouraged employees to get a shot. The company held question-and-answer sessions for employees. A medical official visited hangars in the middle of the night to answer technicians’ questions about the vaccine. The airline also encouraged employees to publicly share their reasons for getting vaccinated.
The mandate proved to be the push that many needed.
United’s communications team, led by Josh Earnest, previously a press secretary for President Barack Obama, informed the media of its plans in the hope that approval from health experts on television might help.
“That echo chamber, I think, was important in influencing the way that our employees responded to this,” he said.
But an initial spike in employees who provided proof of vaccination was followed by a lull. Some employees needed more pushing than others.
As Ms. Applegate agonized, she reached out to Lori Augustine, the vice president who oversees United’s San Francisco hub. Ms. Augustine assured Ms. Applegate that she was a valued employee the company wanted to keep, and offered to accompany her to get her shot. As they walked to the clinic early last month, Ms. Applegate said, she felt empowered but anxious.
Since she got her shot, her conversations with people firmly opposed to vaccinations have diminished. “The ones talking about pros and cons more seriously, without just saying everything is a con, those I was able to continue having a conversation with,” she said.
The airline, too, prepared for blowback in places like its Houston hub and Florida, where it operates many flights.
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