How United Airlines Is Communicating Its Vaccine Mandate to Employees

October 2021
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In August, United Airlines announced that all of its 67,000 employees must receive COVID-19 vaccines or risk losing their jobs. The airline, the first U.S. carrier to impose a vaccine mandate on its workers, initially set a late-October deadline for employees to prove their vaccination status, but then pushed the date up to Sept. 27 after the FDA approved the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine.

“We are doing this for the health and safety of all of our employees,” Steven Restivo, United’s vice president of global communications, said during a livestream webinar on Sept. 13 titled “A Special Forum on United Airlines’ Vaccine Mandate Rollout” hosted by PRSA’s Silicon Valley and Colorado Chapters. (United was granting exemptions for employees who documented religious or health reasons for not getting the shots, officials said.)

When the highly transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus began to surge this past summer, the airline shifted from “an educational and incentive posture” regarding vaccines to the requirement, Restivo said.

“There was a risk-reward exercise that went on among our senior leaders, examining all of our potential vulnerabilities — legal, operational, regulatory, reputational,” he said. United’s team of 10 senior leaders “just kept coming back to [the idea] that this is the right thing to do for our employees,” he said.

When the Chicago-based company informed its workforce of the vaccine mandate first by email and then through town hall meetings, a “vocal minority of folks [who] have deeply held views about the vaccine…were expectedly loud” against it, Restivo said. But “for every person who was angry” about the vaccine ultimatum, the company’s CEO Scott Kirby received “10 notes of support” for the decision, Restivo said. 

For communicators whose companies are planning vaccine requirements, he offered some advice: Be clear about what the company is doing and why. Make employees your communication priority. Keep employees up to date on the state of the pandemic.

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