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United Airlines Postpones Vaccine Mandate Deadline After Employees File Class-Action Lawsuit

Published: September 28, 2021
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - MARCH 09: United Airlines flight attendants Stephanie Cho (L) and Craig Carrico (R) receive COVID-19 vaccines from RN Jill Denna 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 has postponed the deadline for its vaccine mandate after some of its employees filed a lawsuit against the company. United was the first among major carriers to mandate vaccinations.

In August, United Airlines told its 67,000 U.S. employees that they must be vaccinated against COVID-19 or obtain an exemption by Sep. 27. A Sept. 22 memo stated that 97 percent of the company’s employees had been fully vaccinated. It warned unvaccinated workers to get vaccinated or risk getting fired. Those who got an exemption would be placed on temporary unpaid leave starting Sept. 28 until the company decides it is safe for them to return.

But on Sept. 21, six employees from the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport filed a lawsuit against United Airlines, accusing the company of sending unvaccinated individuals with exemptions on unpaid leave and violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

The complaint argued that “indefinite unpaid leave is not a reasonable accommodation. Instead, indefinite unpaid leave is an adverse employment action.” It blamed the company for “failing to engage in the interactive process and provide reasonable accommodations, and also by retaliating against employees who engaged in protected activity.”

The employees sought a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO), arguing that United was forcing them to make an “impossible choice” to either get vaccinated against their health or religious beliefs or lose out on their livelihood.

In the event of a TRO, the company would have to maintain the status quo, until the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) completes the administrative process. 

On Sept. 23, United Airlines pushed back in court. According to the Chicago-based airline, none of the six plaintiffs can claim disability discrimination since they do not have any disability as classified under the ADA.  

But on Sept. 24, the company postponed the vaccine mandate until Oct. 15 and until a federal judge is able to conduct further hearings on the case. Unvaccinated employees with exemptions will now be allowed to work normally. The company is said to have been worried about potentially being slapped with a TRO.

The class-action lawsuit represents at least 2,000 United Airlines workers and has been filed by law firm Schaerr Jaffe in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas.

“We are pleased that under a threat of a Temporary Restraining Order, United Airlines postponed its heartless and unlawful vaccine mandate that would impose on approximately 2,000 employees the unconscionable choice of violating their religious faith, violating their doctors’ orders, or essentially losing their job,” Mark Paoletta, a partner at Schaerr Jaffe representing the plaintiffs, said in a statement.