JetBlue, Alaska Airlines tell employees they must get Covid vaccinations under federal rules

A Boeing 737-990 (ER) operated by Alaska Airlines takes off from JFK Airport on August 24, 2019 in Queens, New York.

Bruce Bennett | Getty Images

Alaska Airlines and JetBlue Airways told their employees that the carriers’ work as government contractors means they must be vaccinated against Covid-19 as early as Dec. 8 because of new federal rules.

President Joe Biden last month said his administration would issue rules that would require employees at federal contractors, a category airlines fall into since they transport government employees and provide other services, as well as companies with more than 100 employees to be vaccinated.

Last week, the Biden administration said federal contractors would need to be vaccinated no later than Dec. 8. Both airlines said there will be an approval process for medical and religious exemptions.

“Based on the guidance issued, all JetBlue Crewmembers – regardless of working in the operation, a support center, or at home – will be required by the government to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 to continue performing their role,” JetBlue’s CEO Robin Hayes and COO Joanna Geraghty said in an employee email on Friday.

The executives urged staff to get vaccinated before the busy end-of-year holiday season.

“Our Customers count on us to get them where they’re going during the holidays, and we need to be ready to fully comply with the mandate before the holiday peak starts and to help bring this pandemic to a close,” they said.

Seattle-based Alaska and New York-based JetBlue haven’t mandated that staff be vaccinated but they have repeatedly encouraged employees to get inoculated. Alaska has offered extra pay to those who share proof of vaccination with the company.

“Since our company does significant work for the federal government, we have determined that Alaska Airlines, Horizon Air and McGee employees – all part of Alaska Air Group – do fall under this federal vaccine mandate, along with other major U.S. airlines,” Alaska said Thursday in a staff note. “This means all of our employees, including certain contractors and vendors, will be required to be fully vaccinated, or be approved for a reasonable accommodation such as medical conditions or religious beliefs that prevent them from being vaccinated.”

CNBC saw a copy of the note. A spokeswoman for the airline told CNBC a “significant majority” of the airline’s roughly 22,000 employees are vaccinated, but she declined to give a percentage, noting that staff are still uploading their proof of vaccination.

Alaska extended its $200 incentive for staff to upload proof of full vaccination from Oct. 15 to Dec. 1.

Airlines’ approaches to vaccines have differed, but most haven’t issued mandates and instead used incentives like extra pay or time off for employees to get shots.

Some labor unions have also opposed making vaccines mandatory such as those representing pilots at American Airlines and Southwest Airlines. Both of those carriers said they expected to fall under the new federal vaccine mandates and didn’t immediately comment for this article.

United Airlines imposed the strictest mandate of any U.S. carrier, requiring its 67,000-person U.S. staff to be vaccinated by last Monday or face termination. More than 96% complied and by Thursday 320 employees were at risk of getting fired, down from 593 when the deadline passed this week, the Chicago-based carrier said.

Delta Air Lines plans to impose a $200 monthly surcharge on unvaccinated employees’ company health insurance starting in November. Unvaccinated employees are now undergoing weekly Covid testing, Delta said.

“While we continue to evaluate the Administration’s plan, Delta is proud to have developed a vaccination program that has already seen 84% of employees get vaccinated and is climbing every day,” the Atlanta-based airline said in a statement.

Delta has close to 80,000 employees.

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