Starting Tuesday, November 16, United Airlines will begin the process of placing unvaccinated but religiously or medically exempt employees on indefinite unpaid leave.
The decision comes a week after a Texas judge dismissed a complaint filed by six unvaccinated but exempt United employees who claimed the airline had failed to provide reasonable accommodations.
In August 2021, United became the first U.S.-based airline to issue a broad COVID-19 vaccine mandate, with a vaccination rate of well over 99 percent among eligible employees. United’s labor unions support the mandate, and the airline has avoided interruption as a result of it.
However, the Chicago-based carrier has been chastised for its strong stance on vaccine exemptions. A group of employees, including a pilot and a flight attendant, sued United over its reasonable accommodation’ approach, which requires frontline personnel to take unpaid leave until the epidemic is no longer a concern to public health, according to the lawsuit.
While the court considers the complaint, a Texas judge imposed a temporary restraining order blocking United from implementing its unpaid leave policy. Despite this, United continued to restrict some vaccination exemption employees from returning to work, a policy that the airline claimed cost them $1.4 million every two weeks to pay unvaccinated pilots to stay at home.
Judge Mark Pittman dismissed the complaint last week, but said the court was “disturbed by United’s rather calloused approach to its workers’ highly personal worries about injecting a foreign chemical into their bodies.”
United had “instituted a regime in which nothing short of total obedience with its directives will satisfy,” Judge Pitmann concluded. Any dissenters will receive a meager stipend 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 a diversity of thought.”
Despite this, the court found that it wasn’t its place to evaluate whether United’s’reasonable accommodation’ approach was a terrible policy and that the employees had failed to show that they would suffer immediate and irreparable harm if an injunction was not granted.
Only 63 percent of medical exemptions were given by the airline, but 80 percent of religious exemptions were allowed.
Employees who received a medical exemption will keep their benefits, while those who received a religious exemption will lose coverage at the end of November. Employees will be paid for their annual leave, but they will lose their seniority.
The federal vaccine mandate for government contractors has been postponed until January 4, 2022, by American Airlines and Southwest, respectively, while Delta continues to pursue a voluntary approach that is expected to reach well over 90% by the end of the year.
“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,” United stated in a statement.