Court Rules United Can’t Put Unvaccinated Staff On Unpaid Leave

  • Airlines

A judge has extended a restraining order preventing United Airlines from sending unvaccinated employees on indefinite unpaid leave. Around 2,000 of United’s 67,000 employees had asked the airline for exemptions on medical or religious grounds, leaving them at risk of being out of work and out of income.

Six United Airlines employees are suing the airline over the prospect of indefinite unpaid leave. Photo: Vincenzo Pace/Simple Flying

Texas judge issues a restraining order

Lawyers for the United Airlines and six impacted employees had previously agreed the airline would not send the workers out on unpaid leave. But that agreement was due to expire soon. On Tuesday, US District Judge Mark Pittman issued a restraining order preventing United from putting the workers on unpaid leave.

“The court is not currently ruling on the merits of the parties’ arguments on these points,” CNN Business quotes Judge Pittman writing. “Rather the court seeks simply to avoid the risk of irreparable harm to the parties and to maintain the status quo while the court holds an evidentiary hearing.”

The restraining order is valid until October 26, by which time Judge Pittman is expected to issue a ruling on the matter.

In early August, United Airlines said its US-based employee must get vaccinated. At that stage, approximately 90% of pilots and 80% of flight attendants had already done so.

“We know some of you will disagree with this decision to require the vaccine for all United employees. But we have no greater responsibility to you and your colleagues than to ensure your safety when you’re at work, and the facts are crystal clear – everyone is safer when everyone is vaccinated,” United told its employees at the time.

232 employees in United’s firing line

United says only 232 US-based employees had either not got vaccinated by the late September deadline or applied for an exemption. On Wednesday, United CEO Scott Kirby confirmed those employees were “going through the termination process.”

But those 232 employees are in a different category from unvaccinated employees who have sought exemptions. United says unvaccinated workers seeking a medical exemption will likely go onto medical leave. Depending on their union contract, they may still receive a portion of their salary. Unvaccinated employees seeking religious exemptions would go onto indefinite unpaid leave.

The six employees suing United Airlines had requested an exemption on one of the two grounds. They are not at immediate risk of losing their jobs – their risk is getting cast into limbo.

“United Airlines’ refusal to provide reasonable accommodations to its vaccine mandate violates the federal civil rights protections of our clients, the hard-working men and women at United,” said the plaintiff’s attorney Mark Paoletta on Wednesday.

Texan vaccination order conflicts with White House order

The lawsuit is taking place in Texas. Earlier this week, Texas Governor Mark Abbott prohibited employers in that state from mandating employee vaccinations. However, the Biden administration is mandating vaccinations among its federal contractors. Most major US airlines, including United, hold federal contracts and are captured by the Biden order.

Two big US airlines, American and Southwest, are based in Dallas. It’s early days yet, but they’ve indicated they’ll abide by the Biden order rather than the Abbott order.

United says the lawsuit will not impact the 232 employees facing termination. The airline seems relatively unfussed about the legal action. The airline knows its pro-vaccination stance has the support of the Biden administration, the majority of its employees, and most of its passengers, an airline spokesperson saying;

“Vaccine requirements work, and nearly all of United’s US employees have chosen to get a shot. For a number of our employees who were approved for an accommodation, we’re working to put options in place that reduce the risk to their health and safety.”

Do you agree with United’s pro-vaccination stance? Should the airline keep the six employees behind the lawsuit on the payroll? Post a comment and let us know.