A judge denied United Airlines employees’ request to block the airline from placing employees exempt from its COVID-19 vaccine mandate on unpaid leave.
A handful of employees who sought religious or medical exemptions filed a lawsuit against Chicago-based United in a Texas federal court in September, alleging the carrier’s offer of unpaid leave wasn’t a reasonable accommodation for workers who received exemptions from the mandate.
Judge Mark Pittman didn’t address that allegation but said employees who filed the lawsuit failed to “show they would suffer imminent, irreparable harm” if the court didn’t block United from placing them on unpaid leave while the court considers the case, according to a court order filed Monday.
United said it was pleased with the court’s decision and is working to identify jobs that don’t involve interacting with customers that unvaccinated employees can apply for until the airline deems it safe for them to return to their current roles.
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All will have the opportunity to apply for a non-customer-facing role, United said. Those who don’t take one will go on unpaid leave. Roughly 2,000 employees were granted religious or medical exemptions.
“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 said in a statement.
Last month, United told a judge it spends roughly $1.4 million every two weeks to keep unvaccinated pilots seeking exemptions on paid leave, according to court records. The airline said putting pilots on leave is its only option because “vaccinated pilots in United’s workforce refuse to risk their safety flying with unvaccinated pilots.”
Mark Paoletta, a partner at Schaerr-Jaffe LLP representing the employees, said in a statement they were disappointed with the decision but “encouraged that the Court saw United’s actions, and in particular United CEO Scott Kirby’s actions, for what they are — a pretext for unlawful discrimination and not based on any legitimate safety rationale.”
Though the judge sided with United, he wrote in Monday’s order that the court was “disturbed by United’s seemingly calloused approach to its employees’ deeply personal concerns with injecting a foreign substance into their bodies.” He comments CEO Scott Kirby made in a video of a town hall meeting warning that “any employee [who] all the sudden decided I’m really religious” would be “putting your job on the line.”
Paoletta said the employees plan to continue with the lawsuit and seek monetary damages.