Two Captain’s for United Airlines, as well as a flight attendant, an aircraft technician, a United Club customer service rep and a station operations representative, have filed a joint federal lawsuit against United, claiming the airline is breaking the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) through its far-reaching vaccine mandate which offers few concessions for employees with a religious or medical exemption.
Last week, it was revealed that nearly 7,000 of United’s U.S.-based employees were still to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 even as a deadline to comply with United’s vaccine mandate fast approaches.
Workers have until September 27 to get the second shot of a two-dose vaccine regimen or the J&J Janssen single-shot vaccine. Employees who failed to secure an exemption and are still unvaccinated by this date face being dismissed.
United said Wednesday the tough approach was working with 97 per cent of U.S.-based workers having now provided proof of vaccination to the airline. Separations for the unvaccinated and unexempt could start as early as next Tuesday.
The new lawsuit, filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, claims the mandate has left workers “with the impossible choice of either taking the COVID-19 vaccine, at the expense of their religious beliefs and their health, or losing their livelihoods”.
Captain David Sambrano and Captain Seth Tunrburgh have both been told to take an indefinite period of unpaid leave as a “reasonable accommodation” that United believes complies with guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC).
Flight attendant Genise Kincannon, customer service rep Debra Jonas, and station operations rep Kimberley Hamilton were also all offered an “indefinite period of unpaid leave” after their requests for either a religious or medical exemption were granted.
Aircraft technician David Castillo submitted his request for an exemption too late for it to be accepted via a special online form United set up but he has requested a medical exemption directly through his supervisor. The exemption is likely to be granted but if not, he’ll face being sacked.
United has told employees who must take unpaid leave that they won’t be allowed to return to work until the threat of COVID-19 has significantly subsided. The lawsuit filed by the six workers claims this will “likely be several years of unpaid leave without benefits: effectively, termination”.
“This policy from United contrasts with the Federal Government’s recent announcement that the Department of Labor is developing a rule to require certain large employers to mandate vaccination or periodic testing for its employees. United is not offering the option of periodic testing, either in general or for employees who receive an accommodation,” the lawsuit continues.
The lawsuit also says United’s policy is far more stringent than Europe’s so-called 3G COVID-19 certificate – which allows people entry to establishments like bars and nightclubs if they prove they are fully vaccinated, or have tested negative recently, or have recently recovered from a past infection.
United has allegedly placed “substantial and unconscionable pressure” on its employees to get vaccinated and chief executive Scott Kirby has “threatened” employees and warned they are “putting their jobs on the line” if they request a medical or religious exemption.
The airline started sending out postcards to unvaccinated employees earlier this month warning that anyone who didn’t get the shot or secure an exemption would be “separated” from the company.
“As these postcards were not sent in an envelope, United effectively broadcast its employees’ vaccination status to all who saw the postcards,” the lawsuit claims.
Once employees request a religious exemption, United started probing more into their beliefs. “What about your religious belief prevents you from getting the COVID vaccines, but not taking other types of medicine,” was just one question that United made employees seeking an exemption answer.
“Have you received vaccinations in the past;” and “Do you currently take or have you taken medications of any kind (over the counter or prescription)?” were two further questions posed by the airline.
Employees were also told to provide written pastoral support that attested to their religious beliefs.
In attempting to bring a class-action suit against United, the group of six believe as many as 2,000 workers could be brought together in the class. Among other demands, the lawsuit is seeking an injunction to prevent United from terminating employees who decline the COVID-19 vaccine.
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.