United Airlines will begin the process of placing unvaccinated but religiously or medically exempt employees on indefinite unpaid leave starting Tuesday, November 16. The move comes a week after a Texas judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by several unvaccinated but exempt United employees who claimed the airline had failed to provide them with reasonable accommodation.
United was the first U.S.-based airline to issue a far-reaching COVID-19 vaccine mandate in August 2021 and has achieved a vaccination rate of well over 99 percent among eligible employees. The mandate is supported by United’s labor unions and the airline has managed to avoid mandate-related disruption.
But the Chicago-based carrier has taken flak for its tough approach to vaccine exempt employees. A group of employees, including a pilot and flight attendant, sued United over its ‘reasonable accommodation’ process that forces frontline employees to take unpaid leave until United decides the pandemic no longer poses a threat to public health.
A Texas judge issued a temporary restraining order preventing United from implementing its unpaid leave policy while the court considered the case. United still went ahead and barred some vaccine exempt employees from returning to work – a policy that the airline told the court was costing it around $1.4 million every two weeks to pay unvaccinated pilots to stay at home.
Last week, Judge Mark Pittman dismissed the lawsuit against United but also took aim at the airline, saying the court was “disturbed by United’s seemingly calloused approach to its employees’ deeply personal concerns with injecting a foreign substance into their bodies”.
Judge Pitmann continued, saying United had “instituted a regime in which nothing short of complete compliance with its commands will suffice. Any dissenters will be given the trifling pittance of indefinite unpaid leave”.
“United’s mandate thus reflects an apathy, if not antipathy, for many of its employees’ concerns and a dearth of toleration for those expressing diversity of thought.”
Nonetheless, the court ruled that it wasn’t its place to determine whether United’s ‘reasonable accommodation’ process was bad policy and decided that the employees had failed to prove that they faced imminent and irreparable injury if an injunction wasn’t granted.
Around 80 percent of employees who requested a religious exemption had their request approved, while only 63 percent of medical exemptions were granted by the airline.
Employees who won a medical exemption will continue to enjoy employee medical benefits, while those with a religious exemption will lose medical coverage at the end of November. Employees will still be paid for annual leave but will lose seniority accrual.
American Airlines and Southwest have delayed the deadline for the federal vaccine mandate for government contractors until January 4, 2022, while Delta continues to pursue a voluntary system that is hoped to reach well over 90 percent by the end of the year.
In a statement, United 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.”
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.