Applying an undisguised shove to its unvaccinated employees, Alaska Airlines leadership is imposing restrictions on those not vaccinated and providing a $200 bonus to those who are, the company announced internally and in a press statement.
Like Southwest, American and Delta, Alaska is stopping short of requiring vaccination as a condition of employment, the step taken by United Airlines. Instead, its new policy will monetarily reward those who are vaccinated and penalize those who refuse.
“We believe having as many people as possible vaccinated is the best path for protection against COVID-19, and we will continue to strongly encourage our employees to be vaccinated,” Alaska said in a statement.
Though 75% of Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air employees have so far provided proof of vaccination, the airline said “we have more work to do.” And so it is “implementing new measures designed to increase vaccination rates.”
Since the end of July, three unvaccinated Alaska Airlines employees have died of COVID-19, including Capt. Eric Moss, a healthy 53-year-old pilot who died just five days after coming down with the infection.
Those deaths spurred management to move more aggressively.
Alaska Air CEO Ben Minicucci gave employees the rationale for the new policy in a memo Thursday.
“Vaccinated people contract and spread COVID at a much lower rate than those who are unvaccinated,” he wrote, citing the consensus among national medical experts.
Under the new policy, unvaccinated employees must be regularly tested, starting November 1. They must also participate in a vaccine-education program and sign a document that lays out the safety protocols to be followed and acknowledges the risks of being unvaccinated.
In addition, unvaccinated employees won’t be paid for absences due to COVID-19 exposure or infection.
If exposed, defined as being within six feet of an infected person for more than 15 minutes over a 24-hour period, they must quarantine for two weeks. For such an absence or time off sick with infection, they may use sick leave or vacation time if they have it; otherwise, it will be unpaid time off.
In contrast, vaccinated employees will not have to quarantine if exposed. And if they get a breakthrough infection, they will have paid time off.
The carrot to go with the sticks is a $200 payment to employees who provide proof of vaccination by Oct. 15.
In addition, vaccinated employees will be permitted to remove their masks if virus rates decline and company policy along with federal, state and local laws allow. Unvaccinated employees must wear a mask at all times, regardless of federal, state and local requirements.
Finally, Alaska said all new hires must be vaccinated, effective immediately.
The new policy is already generating opposition among some employees who are choosing not to vaccinate. One such flight attendant, who asked that her name be withheld, complained about the new rules.
“I am AT work; and if I am exposed from another employee or passenger on my airplane then I should be paid since the company will not allow me to work for 2 weeks!!!,” the flight attendant wrote in an email.
She added that the removal of pay protection for unvaccinated employees who are exposed to the virus “will make flight crew members say NO they haven’t been in contact, which won’t be productive.”
Alaska’s West Coast employee base in Washington, Oregon and California is largely pro-vaccination.
However, the airline has a significant number of employees in the state of Alaska, a more conservative state where the vaccination rate is significantly lower at less than half the population.
Alaska Air management may have stopped short of a vaccination mandate for fear that resistance to outright coercion could result in employees leaving at a time when the carrier is already understaffed.
“I know there are many strong feelings on this issue,” Ben Minicucci told employees Thursday.