United Airlines to Fire Nearly 600 Employees Who Refused Chinese Coronavirus Vaccine

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

United Airlines is planning to fire nearly 600 employees who have refused to get vaccinated against Chinese coronavirus, the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday.

The company announced in August to its 67,000 U.S. employees that they must get vaccinated by September 27, seek an exemption, or face termination. Since the deadline has passed, company officials said they plan to begin the process of firing 593 employees who did not comply. According to the report, unvaccinated workers can “still save their jobs” if they get vaccinated before their termination meetings.

“We know for some, that decision was a reluctant one,” United Chief Executive Scott Kirby and President Brett Hart wrote in a letter to employees Tuesday. “But there’s no doubt in our minds that some of you will have avoided a future hospital stay—or even death—because you got vaccinated.”

Kirby told CNBCs’ “Squawk on the Street” on Wednesday that he feels “bad for the 593 people” who were forced out of their jobs, but he noted that number was only one percent of his employees.

He continued:

[L]ook, I’m really proud and gratified that the United team, excluding the people who have applied for religious or medical accommodations. Over 99 percent got vaccinated. It proves that vaccine mandates do work and that you can get a huge percentage of your workforce vaccinated. You know, I wish it could have been 100 percent, but it was never going to be 100 percent, but I think 99 percent we feel really good about. You know, I feel bad for the 593 people, that less than 1 percent that are going to leave, but we’re focused on doing the right thing for United Airlines. And it’s great to have this in the rearview mirror for us and the ability to just move forward now.

[W]e planned and prepared for this that we’re now able to confidently run a strong operation. At United Airlines, there’s no worry at all because we’ll have everyone already vaccinated. And this really is just great.

The threat of unemployment only applies to employees who decided to forego vaccination and did not procure an exemption. An additional 2,000 airline employees who were able to obtain medical and religious exemptions stand to be placed on unpaid leave.

Six United Airlines employees sued the company in federal court in Texas last week in a class action lawsuit representing those 2,000 employees.  The lawsuit argues that unpaid leave is not a reasonable accommodation to offer to employees who obtained religious and medical exemptions. It further alleges that the airline 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.

United planned to put those employees on unpaid leave starting on October 2. However, evidently fearing it could lose Friday’s court battle and be slapped with a temporary restraining order (TRO), the airline pivoted 180 degrees and agreed to postpone its mandate until October 15. 

Mark Paoletta, a partner at Schaerr Jaffe representing the plaintiff said in a statement:

United’s hostility to their own employees exercising their civil rights is stunning. United’s CEO Scott Kirby previously disparaged those who might seek a religious accommodation and warned that those employees were putting their jobs on the line. Fortunately, for those seeking an accommodation, United’s mandate has for now been stopped dead in its tracks.

The airline is disputing the lawsuit and previously told Fox Business the case is “without merit.” A hearing is scheduled for October 8.

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.

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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