Sherry Walker: Grounded Airline Employees Blame Vaccine Mandate for Holiday Travel Woes Keeping Families Apart

A United Airlines passenger pushes a luggage cart past closed check-in kiosks at San Francisco International Airport on July 08, 2020 in San Francisco, California. As the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic continues, United Airlines has sent layoff warnings to 36,000 of its front line employees to give them a 60 day …
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

As United Airlines cancels hundreds of flights this Christmas and New Year’s, stranding you and your loved ones, we are airline pilots ready to work.  We represent over 2,000 members of the United Airlines family through our organization, Airline Employees 4 Health Freedom. Our ranks include 349 pilots and hundreds of flight attendants who have been grounded, adding to your holiday woes because our employer will not recognize our heartfelt religious beliefs or legitimate medial concerns that prevent us from taking the COVID-19 vaccine.

While we believe that United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby has the right to choose his corporate policies, we do not believe he has the right to choose to illegally disregard our right to reasonable accommodations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Mr. Kirby claims his motive is our personal safety, but we suspect his mandate has more to do with his “100% vaccinated airline” marketing gimmick intended to give United a competitive advantage. But what he does not want the public to know is that unvaccinated pilots from other airlines are still permitted to travel in United’s flight deck jump-seats, while unvaccinated London-based flight attendants routinely intermix with domestic flight crews.

It is becoming obvious that CEO Kirby is willing to inconvenience you in an effort to coerce us to surrender our bodies or our faith for his hollow marketing ploy, and it has backfired. Over the past week, our coworkers are falling ill by the hundreds. United predicted this, sending multiple memos begging for overtime flight crews. Yet while United pleads for more employees to step up to help, the 2,000 of us are left sitting idle, willing and eager to serve you.

This is especially true for the holidays. Christmas and New Year’s are precious times to be with families, and in a year that has confronted us all with so many challenges, we want to help you see your loved ones face to face.

This is especially true for the 27 of us who are women pilots who are grounded because of this vaccine mandate. We are the women who championed equality in the workforce by busting a hole in the glass ceiling big enough for a widebody jet. Then we pulled each other through and never looked back. After 911 we sent our sons and daughters to war, some going ourselves. We are dedicated safety professionals who, as problem solvers, bring unique skills having simultaneously juggled our careers, children, marriages, and homes. Not easy tasks, separately, but add life on the road, and success requires the “right stuff.”

Meanwhile, CEO Kirby has sent us back decades with regards to religious liberty and equal rights. We fought our entire lives to ensure we are judged only for our skills, equal to our male counterparts, and we are proud that our employer is a leader in hiring women and minorities. But wait a minute. Title VII not only includes race, gender, and national origin, it also includes religion. Who is defending our religion at United Airlines?

“In God we Trust” is more than a slogan on our currency, it is the foundation on which our nation was built. Individually, it is the basis on which we build our families. Yet United Airlines seems oblivious to that precious truth. The company seeks to force its employees to forsake their faith for what they argue is the “collective good.” But how can such compulsion be good, collectively or otherwise?

Others among us requested accommodations because of their medical conditions. We have pilots with MS, severe allergies, and other ailments for which their doctors recommend against taking the vaccine. In one situation, our employer countermanded a physician’s order, demanding the pilot get her vaccine in a hospital so that medical personnel could be standing by in case of a reaction. This is not the first struggle in which women have pushed back with the phrase, “My body, my choice.” It also begs the question: if an employer is allowed to succeed in dictating medical choices, where does it stop?

United’s vaccine policy “prohibits retaliation, which includes threatening or taking adverse action against an individual, for, among other things, requesting an accommodation.” That explicit policy notwithstanding, each of us have been grounded without pay or benefits in retaliation for seeking accommodations.

At a time when it is easier to give in, many have asked why 27 skilled aviators would stick their necks out risking everything we have fought to achieve. Judge Ho, in his recent 5th Circuit dissent in support of us, lamented, “It (the United mandate) forces them to choose between the two most profound obligations they will ever assume—holding true to their religious commitments and feeding and housing their children.”

So why risk it all? Quite simply, our children. They are the future, the hope of this nation, the hope that someday we will return to the old normal, not the new. If CEO Kirby truly wanted to do everything possible to serve you – and advance women at his airline – he would put us and our coworkers back to work today, welcoming our diversity of thought and faith so that we could get you to your destination this holiday season and beyond.

Sherry Walker is an airline pilot and co-founder of Airline Employees for Health Freedom (AE4HF.org).

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