Comment: Some airlines losing nerve on vaccine mandate

Reluctance to protect public health stands in contrast to WSU’s move to fire its football coach.

By Timothy L. O’Brien / Bloomberg Opinion

Coronavirus vaccine mandates are only as good as the people enforcing them.

And it seems the executives running Southwest Airlines Co. and American Airlines Inc. could use more backbone. For inspiration, they can look to United Airlines Inc.’s managers, or to mayors, governors and college presidents around the country.

Last week, Southwest and American gamely pushed back against Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s effort to forbid companies headquartered in his state to impose mandates. Both airlines issued statements saying their first responsibility was to follow the Biden administration’s planned federal mandates. In the days since, however, the two Texas-based airlines have shown less gumption.

American originally told employees they would have to be vaccinated or lose their jobs, and eventually imposed a Nov. 24 deadline. It invited employees with religious, medical or disability claims to apply for an exemption. But American’s flight attendants union said management recently indicated that employees who have applied for exemptions can keep working; a concession that weakens the mandate. Southwest first told its employees they had to be vaccinated by Dec. 8 to keep their jobs unless they received an exemption. Employees who applied for exemptions would be placed on unpaid leave while applications were reviewed. But more recently, Southwest told employees that anyone seeking an exemption would not be placed on leave; and encouraged them to apply. I imagine that might persuade many Southwest employees who oppose vaccination to take that advice and dodge the mandate.

Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising. Gary Kelly, Southwest’s chief executive officer, told CNBC last week he wasn’t fully behind this public health stuff. “I’ve never been in favor of corporations imposing that kind of a mandate,” he said. “I’m not in favor of that, never have been.” But he had federal guidelines to follow, he allowed. “My goal obviously is that no one loses their job. The objective here obviously is to improve health and safety, not for people to lose their jobs.”

Improving public health and safety may require layoffs, however;if managers want to ensure that the unvaccinated don’t continue putting others at risk. Delta Air Lines Inc. has also been wishy-washy about vaccine mandates, opposing them, according to its CEO, Ed Bastian, because they’re a “very blunt instrument.” In practice, however, Delta has used financial penalties and testing mandates to encourage inoculations, moves it said boosted its employees’ vaccination rate to 90 percent, from 75 percent.

United has been the most direct. It told employees last summer they would lose their jobs if they weren’t vaccinated by Sept. 27, and it offered no loopholes. It was the first airline to impose a mandate, and it’s in the process of firing 232 of 67,000 employees who ignored it. Scott Kirby, United’s CEO, said the airline’s vaccination rate is now about 99.7 percent. Southwest and American haven’t disclosed vaccination rates for their entire workforces. I wonder why not? After all, which airline would you feel safest flying with today: United, Delta, Southwest or American?

Other kinds of managers are trying to hold the line on vaccine requirements. In Chicago, where only 54 percent of the city’s 12,770-member police department report being vaccinated, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a Democrat, is threatening to lay off more than 4,500 people who missed a Friday deadline to disclose their status. Layoffs began Monday. Chicago’s police and firefighters are outliers among city employees, most of whom have cooperated with the mandate. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, has offered to send in the state’s National Guard to assist Lightfoot if city streets are left unpatroled.

Governors and mayors in New York, Massachusetts, California, Washington state, Oregon and elsewhere have also taken hard lines on vaccine mandates. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court declined to block Maine’s vaccine requirement for its health-care workers, the first time it has ruled on a statewide mandate.

On the college front, Washington State University, a state employee, fired its football coach, Nick Rolovich, and four of his assistants for ignoring the state’s mandate. The university said its “priority has been and will continue to be the health and well-being of the young men” on the Cougars football squad. It noted that mandates had successfully motivated others on campus to get inoculated and that Rolovich, whose request for a religious exemption was denied, was an outlier; 90 percent of the school’s employees and 97 percent of its students are vaccinated.

“I am proud of all those members of our community who have set the example and taken the steps to protect not just themselves, but their fellow Cougs,” said Kirk Schulz, the university’s president. Mandates are being widely enforced on other campuses as well.

Winter is coming, and conditions will ripen for covid-19’s spread. Setting mandates but leaving them porous or unenforced only makes it harder to suppress the pandemic. Southwest, American and any other institution that continues to waffle should know better.

Timothy L. O’Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.

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