The pandemic may just seem like a distant memory, but United Airlines is still facing a barrage of lawsuits over its controversial COVID-19 mandate as a slew of pilots sue the carrier for alleged religious discrimination.
Earlier this month, yet another pilot filed a lawsuit against United for what has been described as its “tyrannical” and “coercive” vaccine mandate, which came into effect in late 2021.
Joseph Oka is a veteran United pilot who had been working for the airline for more than 28 years when he was placed on long-term unpaid leave after winning a religious exemption for refusing the COVID-19 shot.
The lawsuit, which has been filed in a Kentucky district court, claims United’s “unlawful actions” left Oka “with the impossible choice of suffering a physical assault and uninvited invasion of his body by receiving an experimental COVID-19 biologic, at the expense of his religious beliefs, bodily autonomy, medical privacy, and at risk to his health”.
United became the first U.S. airline to issue a near company-wide vaccine mandate in August 2021, demanding that all 67,000 U.S.-based employees show proof of full vaccination within five weeks or face possible dismissal.
Employees were allowed to request an exemption for religious or medical reasons, but public-facing workers, like pilots, flight attendants and gate agents, would be required to take unpaid leave for an indefinite period of time if they managed to win an exemption.
Oka describes himself as a Catholic with “sincere religious objections” to the COVID-19 shots, which prevented him from getting vaccinated and which put him in a position of “losing his livelihood and being unable to provide support for himself and his family.”
In early 2022, United CEO Scott Kirby admitted that the vaccine mandate had failed to prevent employees from going off sick with COVID but that the mandate but that mandatory vaccination had stopped COVID hospitalizations and deaths in its tracks.
Oka, however, claims United’s policy only created the illusion of safety.
“It is clear, the intent was never safety, it was the appearance of safety, at the expense of the rights of employees who did not receive the experimental vaccine, which does not prevent the spread of COVID-19,” the lawsuit claims.
Oka remained on unpaid leave for around five months, during which time he lost $197,000 in pay and benefits. He also lost out on a promotion to become a Captain, which resulted in a further loss of $100,000 in back pay.
Along with United, Oka is also suing the Air Line Pilots Association, accusing the union of failing to properly challenge United’s vaccine mandate or representing members who had sought an exemption from the airline’s vaccine mandate.
United rescinded its vaccine mandate in March 2022 when it started to allow exempted employees return to work.
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.