The union that represents flight attendants at United Airlines has told unvaccinated crewmembers that a medical or religious exemption out of United’s employee vaccine mandate is a “private issue”. United may have to provide ‘reasonable accommodations’ for flight attendants who seek an exemption due to disability or religious belief.
Just over a week ago, United Airlines ordered employees to get vaccinated or risk dismissal. The latest date that vaccine-hesitant employees have to get the shot is October 11 with the Johnson & Johnson Janssen vaccine which is single-shot and which infers full vaccination by United’s cut-off date of October 25.
But while the Chicago-headquartered airline is fully entitled to issue a vaccine mandate, it must consider exemptions for employees with disabilities, medical issues or genuinely held religious beliefs that prevent them from having the vaccine.
The Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) has been supportive of the vaccine mandate but has told members that it “continues to engage with United management on issues surrounding the company’s planned implementation of the COVID-19 vaccination requirement”.
The union can’t, however, help its members through the Reasonable Accommodation Process to request an exemption from the vaccine requirement for either a medical reason or religious belief.
“We do want to be very clear,” a memo from the union warns. “In both instances, these are private issues between the employer, United Airlines, and the employee. It is for this reason that we must direct those seeking a reasonable accommodation to United management for these details.”
AFA General Counsel Ed Gilmartin points out, though: “The vaccination exemption process sought by some airline employees relates to their individual private circumstances whether religious or medical. If the process leads to any negative effect on employment the Union will, of course, represent those Flight Attendants’ rights under the contract and law.”
The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) has ruled that disability and equal rights laws don’t prevent an employer from issuing a mandate that stops unvaccinated employees from physically entering the workplace.
But in some circumstances, an employer should provide “reasonable accommodations” when a disability or a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance prevents an employee from getting vaccinated.
A reasonable accommodation, according to the EEOC, may be frequent COVID-19 tests or mask-wearing but an employer can decline to offer an exemption if doing so would lead to “undue hardship” on the operation of their business.
Frontier Airlines, which quickly followed United by issuing its own vaccine mandate, worked in a ‘reasonable accommodation’ from the outset by allowing employees to take frequent COVID-19 tests as an alternative to vaccination.
Although not covered by the provisions of EEO laws, Qatar Airways offered the same accommodation and found that vaccine uptake was so high that no all operating cabin crew are fully vaccinated.
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of the Flight Attendants, has been a vocal advocate for vaccination and says that there has been a notable uptick in crewmember infections in recent weeks – the majority of whom were unvaccinated.
Nelson campaigned tirelessly to get flight attendants early access to the vaccine and hopes stuttering vaccine uptake won’t lead to another crash in passenger demand. “We’ve made incredible progress in our industry to recover from the worst economic downturn we’ve ever faced,” Nelson said last week.
“But the pandemic is not over. We must remain vigilant.”
Photo Credit: Skycolors / Shutterstock.com
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.