United Airlines may not place unvaccinated employees on unpaid leave if they have requested a medical or religious exemption to the company’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, a federal judge ruled on Tuesday.
In August, the airline announced that its 67,000 U.S. employees must receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Employees who requested a medical or religious exemption from the vaccine would be placed on unpaid leave, United said.
Most United employees were already vaccinated in August — 90% of pilots and 80% of flight attendants — but about 2,000 employees requested medical or religious exemption from the company.
Six employees who had requested such exemptions, including two pilots, sued the airline, arguing that United has engaged in a “pattern of discrimination against employees who requested religious or medical accommodations.” The employees said that the unpaid leave policy means they would be “effectively terminated.”
U.S. District Judge Mark Pittman in Fort Worth, Texas, granted a temporary restraining order on Tuesday to the employees who sued, blocking United from halting the paychecks of any employee requesting medical or religious vaccine exemptions.
United had already agreed not to place the unvaccinated employees on unpaid leave, but that agreement was due to run out before the case could be decided, the judge said.
“The court is not currently ruling on the merits of the parties’ arguments on these points,” the judge wrote in his order. “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 judge also restrained the airline from denying late requests for religious or medical accommodations, according to Reuters.
United issued a statement defending its vaccine mandate and assuring that it is weighing how to provide workers with options.
“Vaccine requirements work and nearly all of United’s U.S. 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, including new testing regimens, temporary job reassignments and masking protocols,” United said.
The temporary restraining order will expire on October 26.
The attorney for the plaintiffs praised the judge’s ruling and expressed confidence in a more permanent decision favoring his clients later.
“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,” attorney Mark Paoletta said. “We look forward to our clients’ rights be permanently protected.”
Earlier this week, United CEO Scott Kirby said that hundreds of United employees will be fired for refusing to get the vaccine.
“I wish we would have gotten to 100 percent but out of our 67,000 US employees, there are 232 who haven’t been vaccinated and they are going through the termination process now,” Kirby said on Wednesday.