Judge ordered to reconsider United Airlines employees’ bid to put vaccine policy on hold

Source: Chicago Tribune

Date: 2/17/2022

United Airlines employees who object to the airline putting employees exempt from its COVID-19 vaccine mandate on unpaid leave will have another shot at asking a judge to block the practice.

A federal appeals court ruled Thursday that a judge who had initially denied their request must reconsider. The ruling from a divided Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals marks the latest step in an ongoing legal battle over Chicago-based United Airlines’ COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

A handful of employees who sought religious or medical exemptions filed a lawsuit against 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.

In November, Judge Mark Pittman denied their request to block United from placing them on unpaid leave while the court considers the case, finding they failed to “show they would suffer imminent, irreparable harm.”

In their ruling Thursday, the majority of the three-member panel found that the employees who remain on unpaid leave are “actively being coerced to violate their religious convictions,” which is an irreparable harm.

They did not rule on whether United could impose a vaccine mandate, and did not determine whether United should be blocked from placing exempt employees on unpaid leave during the ongoing court case. They ruled only that the lower court must reconsider the request.

“United has presented plaintiffs with two options: violate their religious convictions or lose all pay and benefits indefinitely,” the judges wrote. “That is an impossible choice for plaintiffs who want to remain faithful but must put food on the table.”

Judge Jerry Smith disagreed with the majority, saying in a 57-page dissent it “twists the record to fit that invention.”

“We should not rush to stop private businesses from shielding their employees and customers during a pandemic,” he wrote.

United said in a statement it would continue to defend its vaccination policy.

“There’s no doubt our vaccine requirement has saved lives and kept our employees out of the hospital,” the company said. “And it’s clear the best way to stay safe is for everyone to get vaccinated, as nearly all United employees have chosen to do.”

The company has said unvaccinated employees can apply for jobs that don’t involve interacting with customers until the airline deems it safe for them to return to their current roles. Those who don’t take one go on unpaid leave. Roughly 2,000 employees were granted religious or medical exemptions.

Mark Paoletta, a partner at Schaerr-Jaffe representing the employees, said in a statement they were pleased with the court’s decision, and he would continue to fight for employees with medical or religious exemptions.

“No employee should be required to forsake her beliefs or her health in order to continue working,” he said.

A group of airline employees challenging the vaccine policies also praised the ruling.

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