• United last year established the airline industry’s first and strictest Covid vaccine mandate.
  • Workers who received an exemption on medical or religious grounds were placed on unpaid leave.
  • More than 96% of United’s roughly 67,000 workers were vaccinated, United said last year.
United Airlines 737 Max 8
A United Airlines 737 Max 8 Leslie Josephs | CNBC

United Airlines, citing a steep decline in Covid-19 cases, told staff Thursday that it will allow unvaccinated workers to return to their jobs starting March 28, a shift from a company that had one of the country’s strictest inoculation mandates.

Last August, United said it would require U.S. employees to be vaccinated against Covid or face termination. More than 96% of United’s roughly 67,000 U.S. workers were vaccinated, the company said.

In January, CEO Scott Kirby said the company didn’t have any Covid deaths among unvaccinated workers over the past eight weeks, despite a surge in cases of the omicron variant, which has since subsided.

United had said the roughly 2,200 workers who received exemptions on medical or religious grounds would go on unpaid leave or be moved to non-customer-facing roles. For example, unvaccinated flight attendants couldn’t work their regular jobs. Roughly 200 employees were fired for not being vaccinated or having an accommodation and will not be asked back.

A federal judge in Texas upheld United’s vaccine mandate in November after six employees sued to block it two months earlier. But the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last month ruled that the federal judge must reconsider the injunction the workers sought.

On Thursday, United sought to vacate that ruling and dismiss the appeal because of the lessening severity of the pandemic and its new policy.

“In light of these changed circumstances, plaintiffs’ preliminary-injunction motion is moot, and this Court should vacate the panel opinion and dismiss the appeal,” it in a court filing.

A drop in new Covid cases, hospitalizations and loosening of masking requirements in many cities “suggest that the pandemic is beginning to meaningfully recede,” Kirk Limacher, vice president of human resources, said in a staff note. “As a result, we’re confident we can safely begin the process” of returning staff with exemptions back to their jobs.

“Of course, if another variant emerges or the COVID trends suddenly reverse course, we will reevaluate the appropriate safety protocols at that time,” Limacher said.

The Wall Street Journal reported late Wednesday that the company would change its policy.

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