United Airlines, which was one of the first major businesses to mandate vaccination against the coronavirus, will allow workers who were granted religious or medical exemptions from receiving a shot to return to their jobs at the end of this month.
About 2,200 United employees received exemptions last year. They were placed on unpaid leave or were moved to roles that did not involve in-person contact with customers. Those employees will be able to return to their normal positions on March 28.
“We expect Covid case counts, hospitalizations and deaths to continue to decline nationally over the next few weeks and, accordingly, we plan to welcome back those employees,” Kirk Limacher, United’s vice president for human resources, said in a note to employees on Thursday.
The airline’s plans were reported earlier by The Wall Street Journal.
United announced its vaccine mandate in early August, one of the first major corporations to do so. By October, nearly all of the airline’s 67,000 employees had been inoculated in what was one of the largest and most successful corporate vaccination efforts at the time. About 200 employees were later fired for failing to comply with the policy, and all new hires are required to be vaccinated.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Scott Kirby, the airline’s chief executive, had written letters to the families of employees who had died from the virus, a practice that he once described as “the worst thing that I believe I will ever do in my career.” As the Delta variant began its spread over the summer, he decided to do something about it.
“We concluded enough is enough,” he said in an interview with The New York Times last year. “People are dying, and we can do something to stop that.”
In January, Mr. Kirby said the vaccine mandate had saved the lives of an estimated eight to 10 United employees since late September. In his note on Thursday, Mr. Limacher said vaccinated employees were “remarkably safe” compared with those who had been approved for an exemption, five of whom had died since November.
United’s shift in policy comes as the Omicron virus wave recedes and the nation eases pandemic restrictions. If a new variant emerges or case counts rise again, the airline may adjust course, Mr. Limacher said.