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Mandatory employee vaccines: United Airlines CEO makes his case to Chicago business leaders

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby doubled down on his desire to make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory for corporate America, saying people eventually will accept the shots just as they’ve accepted wearing masks.

“It will just become what is expected and what most companies do. Once the ball gets rolling, it’s going to roll all the way to the bottom,” he said during a wide-ranging virtual talk at the Economic Club of Chicago on Tuesday.

He said he thinks there is “a big second wave” of companies that would like to make it mandatory once others take that step.

“I’m realistic enough, while I think it’s the right thing to do, to know United Airlines alone can’t do it and have it stick. There don’t have to be a ton of others, but there have to be others,” he said.

It’s not just about waiting for others to join in: United would need to work out the logistics of making the vaccine available to all workers before requiring it. In a meeting with employees last month, Kirby said United wanted to make the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for its workforce, as long as it’s not the only company to do so.

The airline wouldn’t need to bargain with unions to require vaccines, he said. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has determined employers can require workers to get the vaccine, though workers can decline because of a disability or sincerely held religious belief.

If employees refuse the vaccine, United would try to find them jobs that don’t require interacting with others, but there are a limited number of those roles, Kirby said.

Asked about Kirby’s comments, the unions representing United’s flight attendants and pilots said they want to make sure members have access to the vaccine. While flight crew are among the essential workers eligible to receive it in Illinois, different states have different rules.

“We need a federal approach that prioritizes Flight Attendants as essential workers facilitating interstate commerce,” said Taylor Garland, spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, in a statement. The union represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 17 airlines.

Kirby also said he hopes to see vaccine passports — credentials proving the holder has been vaccinated — used to help reopen parts of the economy that have been restricted during the pandemic, like overseas travel and live events.

Government officials would need to set up the rules for such a program, but the airline’s online tool for navigating travel during the pandemic lets passengers upload testing and vaccination records.

Vaccine passports could help convince people wary of the vaccine to get the shot, he said. “It gives people a pretty strong incentive, because that’s the way they can get their life back.”

“We think it’s a key to opening not just international borders and aviation, but the economy,” Kirby said.

Despite the toll the pandemic has taken on air travel, Kirby said United still supports the $8.5 billion expansion plan for O’Hare International Airport, including a new Global Terminal and three new concourses.

He expects international travel to bounce back quickly as travel restrictions begin to ease. United sped up efforts to install its Polaris international business class seats on aircraft in September — an upgrade that costs $10 million per plane.

“If you’ve been on lockdown for 18 to 24 months and your choice is to go visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland — nothing against it, by the way, it’s great — or you can go to Paris, I’m betting on Paris,” he said.

This article originally appeared on Chicago Tribune

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