Employees Sue United Airlines Over ‘Discriminatory’ Vaccine Mandate, Potentially 1000s Face Firing

United Airlines employees wear mask as they walk through in Terminal 1 at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020. United Airlines, which furloughed 13,000 employees this month, is expected to report a large third-quarter loss as the coronavirus pandemic continues to batter air travel. (AP Photo/Nam Y. …
AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

Six United Airlines employees are suing the company for its “draconian” Chinese coronavirus vaccine mandate, alleging the company has violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by discriminating against them based on their religious and medical exemptions.

The class action lawsuit, which powerhouse Washington, D.C. law firm Schaerr Jaffe filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas on Tuesday,  represents potentially at least 2,000 United Airlines employees. These workers have obtained religious or medical exemptions and will maintain employment, but they will be forced to live without pay and health benefits for up to six years while the company assesses the pandemic, according to the complaint.

“United’s actions have left Plaintiffs with the impossible choice of either taking the COVID-19 vaccine, at the expense of their religious beliefs and their health, or losing their livelihoods,” the complaint states. “In doing so, United has violated Title VII and the ADA by failing to engage in the interactive process and provide reasonable accommodations, and also by retaliating against employees who engaged in protected activity.”

United Airlines Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Scott Kirby announced to the company’s 67,000 U.S. employees that they must be vaccinated by September 27 and upload a copy of their vaccination card to the company’s database. Anyone who does not get vaccinated by that date will be fired.

Those who apply for religious or medical exemptions will be accommodated by being placed on unpaid leave and losing their health benefits, court documents show. However, the complaint argues that “indefinite unpaid leave is not a reasonable accommodation. Instead, indefinite unpaid leave is an adverse employment action.”

The company also does not have any alternatives for those who are unvaccinated, such as frequent PCR tests and masking, and does not consider previous infection as a valid medical excuse. The complaint details how United Airlines’ vaccine mandate is actually more strict than President Joe Biden’s proposed federal vaccine mandate, which would offer such alternatives, and the European Union’s digital COVID-19 certificate, which takes previous infection into consideration. 

“We filed this lawsuit to protect the rights of honest, hardworking United Airlines employees who have religious or medical reasons not to receive the COVID-19 vaccine,” Mark Paoletta, a partner at Schaerr Jaffe representing the plaintiff said in a statement. “United has refused to grant any accommodations and these employees are scared by United’s draconian mandate that forces them to either get the vaccine or lose their job. That’s unacceptable in America.”

High-Stakes

The six employees who are suing the company all applied for either religious or medical exemptions — or both — though the company reportedly only allows employees to apply for one kind of exemption through its online application program.

The airline also allegedly created an “arbitrary” August 31 deadline for employees to apply for religious exemptions but did not establish a similar deadline for medical exemptions. The complaint alleges that the difference in deadlines is part of a continuing pattern of “hostility” to requests for religious accommodations.

According to the complaint, Kirby had previously “threatened employees ‘to be very careful about’ requesting such accommodations.”

The complaint continues:

Mr. Kirby stated that there would be very “few people that get through the medical and religious exemption process”—describing such employees derisively as “all [of a] sudden decid[ing] ‘I’m really religious.’”

Several of the employees were also asked questions “geared to probe and manipulate the beliefs of religious accommodation seekers,” according to the complaint.

While many of their exemptions were accepted, each employee was subsequently informed they would be placed on unpaid leave — indefinitely. The United Airlines employees are basically as good as fired without the official “unemployed” label.

One of the plaintiffs, Kimberly Hamilton, has been with the company for 18 years and works as a station operations representative. As a devout Catholic, Hamilton submitted a religious exemption on August 26, declining to get vaccinated because of her belief the coronavirus vaccines were developed using aborted fetal tissue.

The airline approved her request on September 9 after requesting a letter from a third party supporting her religious views. Subsequently, she was told she would be placed on unpaid leave.

Hamilton is the primary earner in her family, and her husband is currently undergoing cancer treatment “which they will be unable to afford if she is placed on unpaid leave.” She will also reportedly have to pay for her own insurance coverage while on unpaid leave. Even now, the threat of no income has forced the Hamilton’s to consider what type of cancer treatment her husband can afford, according to the complaint.

Another plaintiff, Seth Turnbough, has worked for the company for 16 years and is a pilot. Turnbough requested a medical exemption on August 6. He has relapsing/remitting multiple sclerosis (MS) and his neurologist recommended he forego the coronavirus vaccine “due to a concern that it might trigger a “cytokine storm”—a condition where an individual’s immune system is over-stimulated and begins attacking healthy tissue and organs,” the complaint states. His doctor is also concerned about his risk of blood-clotting, “which is already an elevated concern for all pilots.”

Turnbough was “accommodated” on September 10 and will be placed on unpaid leave. He will reportedly lose his health benefits and his ability to retire in good standing, court documents allege. The stress from being placed on unpaid leave could also reportedly cause an MS relapse.

Plaintiff David Castillo has worked for the company for 22 years and is an aircraft technician. He submitted a request for religious exemption on September 17, several days after the August 31 deadline. He was subsequently denied, the airline citing his request as “untimely.”

Castillo went to his supervisor directly to ask for a medical exemption, which is still pending. Castillo said he will be unable to afford his housing or his car if he is placed on unpaid leave.

“Unable to renew his lease without employment, he will become homeless on October 1, 2021,” the complaint states.

He also reportedly has diabetes and will no longer be able to afford proper medical care.

Paoletta continued:

This is not about how effective the vaccines are or whether United may mandate vaccination. The fact is that some people have sincere religious objections to the COVID-19 vaccine, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to respect and accommodate those beliefs. United has failed to do this. It’s especially outrageous that United refuses to grant meaningful religious exemptions to employees who have already suffered from a COVID infection and can prove that they are immune — and unable to infect others — by virtue of the resulting antibodies.”

Some United employees also have special medical conditions. Their personal physicians –medical specialists who know these patients best and have their best interests at heart — have advised them not to take the vaccine, at least not until research proves it is safe for their condition. Personal medical decisions should be made in consultation with healthcare providers, and no one should ever need to violate their doctor’s orders to keep their job. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides robust protections for such people. Corporate employers violate those protections at their peril.

‘Without Merit’

In a statement to Fox Business, a United Airlines spokesperson said the company believes the complaint is “without merit” considering the reportedly “small” number of employees impacted by the mandate:

The most effective thing we can do as an airline to protect the health and safety of all our employees is to require the vaccine – excluding the small number of people who have sought an exemption, more than 97% of our U.S. employees are vaccinated. And we’ve been encouraged by the overwhelmingly positive response from employees across all work groups, since we announced the policy last month. We’re reviewing this complaint in greater detail but at this point, we think it’s without merit.

With 67,000 employees in the U.S., a 97 percent vaccination rate still leaves several thousand employees in limbo, however.

Given the urgent and potentially life-threatening situations several of the plaintiffs are facing, Schaerr Jaffe has asked the court for a temporary restraining order (TRO) to be placed on the company’s mandate.  A TRO means United Airlines would have to maintain the “status quo” — employees would show up to work and receive compensation — pending completion of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) administrative process.

United Airlines is reportedly the first airline to mandate vaccines for its employees. The case, which is to be heard by former President Donald Trump appointee Judge Mark Pittman, could arguably create a domino effect if successful and lead to other vaccine mandate cases across the country.

A grassroots organization of U.S. airline employees “working to defend members’ religious liberties and medical freedoms” called the Airline Employees 4 Health Freedom expressed support for the lawsuit in a Tuesday statement to Fox Business:

These past few months have been an extremely difficult time for many. We have listened to and supported thousands of co-workers who have been distraught by this draconian process. Based on the facts alleged in the complaint, we are confident that the judge and the public will side with the thousands of United employees who are bravely standing up for the religious and medical rights of all Americans.

The case is Sambrano v. United Airlines, No. 4:21-cv-1074 in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas.

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