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United Airlines said that 99 per cent of its U.S. work force of 67,000 had been vaccinated, a sign that vaccine mandates can be effective at a corporate level.David Zalubowski/The Associated Press

United Airlines said it would terminate about 600 employees for refusing to comply with its vaccination requirement, putting the company at the forefront of the battle over vaccine mandates as the economy moves through a bumpy pandemic recovery.

The airline also said that 99 per cent of its U.S. work force of 67,000 had been vaccinated, a sign that mandates can be effective at a corporate level.

More companies have announced vaccine requirements as the government puts increasing pressure on them to help the country increase its inoculation rate. This month, U.S. President Joe Biden mandated that all businesses with 100 or more workers require their staff to be vaccinated or face weekly testing, helping propel new corporate vaccination policies.

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United Airlines makes COVID-19 shots compulsory for U.S. employees

Some companies have made vaccination compulsory as a condition of work, while others are still trying to encourage their employees with a mix of incentives and deterrents. In August, United Airlines became the first U.S. carrier and one of the first large corporations to issue a vaccine mandate.

“This was an incredibly difficult decision but keeping our team safe has always been our first priority,” Scott Kirby, United’s chief executive, and Brett Hart, its president, said in a memo sent to staff Tuesday.

On Wednesday, a spokeswoman confirmed that the company had already begun its process to terminate 593 U.S.-based employees who declined to be vaccinated. Workers losing their jobs because of non-compliance with the mandate make up less than 1 per cent of the airline’s U.S. work force.

“We will work with folks if during that process they decide to get vaccinated,” the spokeswoman said.

United Airlines did not give a timeline for the termination process or a breakdown of the job categories of the fired workers.

United has said that unvaccinated workers can request an exemption based on religious or medical reasons, and that exempt workers will be placed on leave, in many cases unpaid, starting Saturday. The airline postponed the decision to place those workers on leave until Oct. 15, pending a lawsuit filed by six employees, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union said in a statement Monday.

Any company is within its legal right to require employees to be vaccinated, barring any conflicting disability or religious belief, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has ruled.

“There’s public policy in favour of vaccine mandates, so it’s almost impossible for an employee to argue that it’s against public policy to terminate them as long as the employer provided exemptions on medical an religious grounds,” said Aditi Bagchi, a labour law professor at Fordham University School of Law.

In early August, United announced that all its employees would be required to provide proof of vaccination within five weeks of a vaccine’s full approval by the Food and Drug Administration, or by Oct. 25, whichever came first. The FDA in late August granted full approval to Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and older. At the time, United warned that it would fire employees who did not follow the new policy.

Other airlines have taken different measures to encourage employees to get inoculated. Delta Air Lines announced last month that it was adding a $200 monthly surcharge on its health care plan for employees who were not vaccinated. The company has also said that it requires new employees to be vaccinated, but that existing employees are exempt. American Airlines said it was “not putting mandates in place” for employees or customers.

Other industries are enforcing vaccination requirements. Hospitals across the country have fired health care workers for refusing to comply with vaccination requirements, and in early August, CNN said that it had fired three employees who violated its coronavirus safety protocols by going to the office unvaccinated.

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