After telling employees they could be granted religious exemptions to getting the COVID-19 vaccine, United Airlines has now announced those employees who were granted such exemptions will be placed on unpaid leave until “the pandemic meaningfully recedes.”
CNBC reported that the airline made the announcement to staff on Wednesday, “citing the recent rise in Covid cases.” This is a reversal from last month, when United told its 67,000 U.S. employees that they could receive religious and personal exemptions from the company’s vaccine mandate, as well as medical exemptions.
But on Wednesday, the airline said that its employees who are granted religious and personal exemptions will be put on unpaid leave but can return to work “once the pandemic meaningfully recedes,” without defining what that meant. Employees who would be placed on unpaid leave included airport customer service agents, flight attendants, gate agents, and even pilots.
Other employees, including mechanics and dispatchers, who were granted religious and personal exemptions “can return to work after the airline puts in new testing and other measures,” CNBC reported. The outlet added that United “is still determining safety measures for office workers with exemptions and whether they need to come in at all.”
Those who received medical exemptions from the company’s vaccine mandate will be placed on temporary medical leave, CNBC reported.
United said on Wednesday that anyone not granted an exemption will have to be vaccinated within five weeks of their denial. They must have their first dose of the vaccine by September 27 or they will be fired.
“Airlines’ approaches to encourage vaccination rates of their staff have varied. Delta Air Lines is imposing a $200 surcharge on unvaccinated employees’ company health care premiums. Delta, American Airlines and Alaska Airlines will end pay protections for unvaccinated employees who contract or are exposed to Covid-19,” CNBC reported.
United previously mandated that its U.S. employees “provide evidence that they got two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, five weeks after the vaccines are fully approved by government officials, or by October 25, whichever date comes first, per executives.,” The Daily Wire reported.
“We know some of you will disagree with this decision to require the vaccine for all United employees,” United CEO Scott Kirby and President Brett Hart said in early August. “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.”
The move by United could open it up to lawsuits from employees who allege their rights were violated when the airline granted them a religious exemption but essentially punished them for exercising their First Amendment rights.
It follows another move by United that may open the company up to lawsuits. In April, United announced that it would ensure that “50% of the 5,000 pilots we train in the next decade to be women or people of color,” a move that may mean the company accepts pilots by sex and race rather than skill, which could not only be discriminatory, but also dangerous.