Jan 6, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Anti-mandate airline employees court conservatives

Illustration of elephant feet going up an airplane stairway.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Airline employees fighting COVID-19 vaccine mandates have found receptive ears among prominent conservative media and policy figures as they try to beat back measures to force the jab on flight crews.

Why it matters: Dueling concerns about public health and airline staff shortages make debates over those mandates critically important to U.S. health and transportation policy.

  • But as vaccine policy debates splinter into partisan factions, groups looking to sway policymakers on the issue are left to pick one side or the other.

The latest: A group of United Airlines employees going by Airline Employees 4 Health Freedom has hired a pair of Republican lobbyists — former Mike Pence counsel Mark Paoletta and former Trump transition official Ken Klukowski — to press Congress to roll back mandates.

  • They anticipate lobbying for a bill requiring companies that receive federal funds to offer vaccine exemptions for essential workers, and for legislation to block a Biden administration rule mandating vaccines or regular testing for tens of millions of workers.
  • Paoletta and Klukowski began their lobbying efforts in September, according to disclosure filings posted publicly last week.
  • Their firm, Schaerr Jaffe, also represents United employees in a lawsuit against the airline's policy of placing employees who decline the vaccination for religious reasons on unpaid leave.
  • A federal appeals court heard arguments in that lawsuit again Monday.

Since bringing on the firm, AE4HF has picked up support from some prominent conservative voices on Capitol Hill.

What they're saying: "It isn't a partisan issue to us," Paoletta told Axios during an interview. "When they went up on the Hill, it was to anybody who would listen."

  • AE4HF has made its concerns known to members on both sides of the aisle, he said, including to every member of the Senate Commerce Committee ahead of the hearing last month.
  • "We'll talk to anybody," Paoletta said. "This isn't political for them. I don't know what their political affiliations are. They had an issue. They feel like their rights were being trampled."

In a statement to Axios, United Airlines said: "We know that the best way to keep everyone as safe as we can is for everyone to get vaccinated, as nearly all United employees have chosen to do.

  • "We have identified non-customer facing roles where accommodated employees can apply and continue working until it is safe for them to their return to their current positions."

The big picture: With vaccine politics largely breaking down along partisan lines, Republicans in Washington nonetheless present the most viable target for AE4HF and like-minded groups.

  • Nearly two-thirds of the House GOP, and all but three Senate Republicans, signed on to a brief this week asking the Supreme Court to overturn the Occupational Health and Safety Administration's vaccine-or-test requirement.

The issue also is getting significant play in conservative media, where AE4HF has found receptive audiences.

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