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Thousands of United Airlines Employees at Risk of Being Placed on Unpaid Leave; United Sued Over Vaccine Mandate

Darren Maung
Darren is an aspiring writer who wishes to share or create stories to the world and bring humanity together as one. A massive Star Wars nerd and history buff, he finds enjoyable, heart-warming or interesting subjects in any written media.
Published: September 24, 2021
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - MARCH 09: United Airlines pilot Steve Lindland receives a COVID-19 vaccine from RN Sandra Manella at United's onsite clinic at O'Hare International Airport on March 09, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. United has been vaccinating about 250 of their O'Hare employees at the clinic each day for the past several days. (Image: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

United Airlines is facing scrutiny after six of its employees filed a lawsuit against the airline company claiming its “draconian” COVID-19 vaccine policy is discriminatory towards its workers.

The class action lawsuit was filed before a Texas federal court on Tuesday, citing United’s move to cut off payments to those who are religiously or medically exempt from the vaccine. Should the suit be successful it could lead to more vaccine mandate cases.

United Airlines’ mandate

According to CEO Scott Kirby, United’s 67,000 employees have to be vaccinated by Sept. 27 and provide a copy of their vaccination card to United’s database, or they will be fired. The company is claiming that 97 percent of its staff have been vaccinated.

No other airline has issued a mandate like this. Plans have been made by the airline to enforce strict rules that will not allow unvaccinated employees to take a Covid-19 test to prove they are not infected. United Airlines is the first airline to make vaccines mandatory for staff.

The lawsuit, presented in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, filed by law firm Schaerr Jaffe, represents 2,000 United Airlines employees who are claiming religious or medical exemptions. 

The claimants include pilots, flight attendants and operation staff, who had their requests for exemption denied and were put on “indefinite unpaid leave” by the company. 

Essentially, they were fired without being labelled as “unemployed.”

Kirby said that United Airlines only denied a few requests, adding that some quit over the policy, with more expected to do so as the deadline nears.

The plaintiffs’ case

The plaintiffs reported that employees applied for exemptions, but were only given the option to apply for one type. 

They said that United allegedly gave employees until Aug. 31 to request an exemption and that requests were denied after the date had come. Moreover, the deadline was only for religious exemptions, with no clear deadline for medical exemptions.

The employees also reported that Kirby “threatened” employees to be cautious about “requesting such accommodations,” stating that there would be very few successful requests and questioned whether some people were “really religious.”

According to the complaint, questions were asked that were “geared to probe and manipulate the beliefs of religious accommodation seekers.” 

One Catholic plaintiff, Kimberly Hamilton, applied for a religious exemption that was approved, but she was then placed on unpaid leave, denying her the financial backing that she was relying on to support her husband, who is undergoing cancer treatment, and to cover her insurance costs.

Seth Turnbough, a pilot for United Airlines who suffers from relapsing/remitting multiple sclerosis (MS), said his neurologist advised against taking the vaccine for fear that it would trigger a “cytokine storm”, which would affect the immune system and damage the inner body. Though his exemption was accepted, he was also placed on unpaid leave, losing his health benefits in the process.

David Castillo, with 22 years of experience as an aircraft technician, applied for a religious exemption after the Aug. 31 deadline, but was quickly rejected as the request was “untimely.” 

His medical exemption is still pending, but Castillo fears he will be unable to cover his housing and transport costs, as well as medical expenses to treat diabetes, should he be placed on unpaid leave

“Unable to renew his lease without employment, he will become homeless on October 1, 2021,” the complaint states.

Mark Paoletta, partner at Schaerr Jaffe, stated, “United has refused to grant any accommodations and these employees are scared by United’s draconian mandate that forces them to either get the vaccine or lose their job. That’s unacceptable in America.”

Paoletta also stressed that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 should be honored by employers to “respect and accommodate” the beliefs of those who applied for exemption, and was outraged that United had failed to comply with its employees’ requests.

United’s response

According to a United Airlines spokesperson, the company believes that the complaint is “without merit” due to the “small” number of employees affected by the mandate. He said the company needs to “protect the health and safety” of its staff, and claimed that the majority of United’s employees support the policy adding that United would review the complaint in “greater detail.”

Even with 97 percent of its staff vaccinated, there are still thousands of employees potentially seeking an exemption. 

Schaerr Jaffe has requested that the court places a temporary restraining order (TRO) on the company’s mandate, allowing employees to work and receive compensation and to keep the “status quo.”

To show its support for the lawsuit, a local organization of U.S. airline employees “working to defend members’ religious liberties and medical freedoms” stated, “Based on the facts alleged in the complaint, we are confident that the judge and the public will side with the thousands of United employees who are bravely standing up for the religious and medical rights of all Americans.”