United Airlines, Inc. has been hit with a proposed class action challenging its apparent failure to provide reasonable accommodations to those who request to be excluded from the airline’s requirement that all employees be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Filed by six employees, the 31-page lawsuit alleges the airline has discriminated against workers who request accommodations by effectively terminating them, i.e., placing them on unpaid leave for an undetermined amount of time, without offering any reasonable alternative. According to the suit, United’s policy has left employees with “the impossible choice” of either getting the COVID-19 vaccine “at the expense of their religious beliefs and their health” or forfeiting their livelihoods.
The case alleges violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Per the suit, United CEO Scott Kirby announced on August 6, 2021 that all employees would be required to receive a COVID-19 vaccine either within five weeks of the FDA’s approval of a vaccine or five weeks after September 20, 2021, whichever came first. Given the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine was approved by the FDA on August 23, United employees must get at least one dose of the vaccine by September 27 or face termination, the case says. Notably, United’s vaccine mandate is “absolute,” the lawsuit relays, stressing that the airline has not offered any alternative such as COVID-19 testing, mask mandates or social distancing, some of which had already been implemented by United at the beginning of the pandemic.
According to the case, United’s policy differs from the U.S. government’s recent announcement that the Department of Labor will be implementing a rule whereby employees of certain large employers will be required to either receive a COVID-19 vaccine or undergo periodic testing.
The lawsuit alleges that while United has allowed employees to request religious or medical exemptions from the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, CEO Scott Kirby has “threatened” workers to “be very careful about” requesting an accommodation. Moreover, workers have been subjected to “substantial and unconscionable pressure” from United, “prob[ing] and manipulat[ive]” questions and unreasonable timelines for submitting documentation, the case contests.
The suit argues that United applied disparate standards for determining whether an employee’s accommodation request would be approved. While some workers were asked for additional information, such as medical certifications and pastoral letters attesting to their religious beliefs, others were not. Likewise, some requests for accommodation were denied for “arbitrary reasons,” including that they were considered “untimely” under United’s “artificial” August 31 submission deadline or because the employee failed to respond within three to five days of United’s request for “substantiation” of their religious beliefs, according to the complaint.
Employees whose accommodations were approved by the airline have been placed on indefinite unpaid leave, the lawsuit goes on to explain, effectively depriving these workers of their livelihoods and access to medical benefits based on their medical conditions or religious beliefs, the suit says. Despite imposing vaccine requirements on some employees for purported safety reasons, United has not required its passengers, employees from other countries, employees of United’s regional airline partners, or pilots from other airlines riding in the “jumpseat” on a United flight—all of whom interact with the airline’s staff—to be vaccinated, the case attests. Moreover, while non-customer-facing employees may be permitted to return to work with the implementation of certain mitigation measures, customer-facing employees such as pilots and flight attendants will be on leave “until the risk of COVID is low enough that [United] deem[s] it safe” or the pandemic “meaningfully” subsides, the suit says. According to the case, United failed to offer any explanation for why some groups of employees would be treated differently with respect to when and how they could return to work.
All told, the lawsuit claims United has relied on “arbitrary line-drawing rather than engaging in the interactive process with each employee who requested an accommodation.” In doing so, the airline has discriminated against employees who have requested reasonable religious or medical accommodations in violation of federal law, the case summarizes.
The case seeks a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction requiring United to temporarily suspend the timeline of its vaccine mandate for those who request religious or medical accommodations to allow the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to review the plaintiffs’ claims.
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