United employees granted vax exemptions put on unpaid leave, can't work elsewhere, activists claim

United's mandate "reflects an apathy, if not antipathy, for many of its employees' concerns and a dearth of toleration for those expressing diversity of thought," District Court Judge Mark Pittman wrote in his decision.

Updated: December 25, 2021 - 10:23pm

United Airlines employees who have been granted exemptions to the company's COVID-19 vaccine mandate are allegedly being placed on indefinite unpaid leave, unable to seek employment elsewhere within the industry, access their 401(k) retirement savings, or file for unemployment. 

United Airlines Capt. Sherry Walker, who has been placed on indefinite unpaid leave, told Just the News that United employees seeking reasonable accommodation regarding the company's vaccine mandate for religious or medical reasons are being placed on indefinite unpaid leave and cannot leave their job for another airline because of the noncompete clause in their contracts. 

Walker is cofounder of Airline Employees 4 Health Freedom (AE4HF), which represents 4,000 airline employees, about half of whom are with United.

If United employees seek outside employment in a different industry, they must ask the airline if they can apply elsewhere, said Walker. Even if they're allowed to apply for another job and are hired, United can ask previous employees to return within the first 14 days. 

United employees are not allowed to file for unemployment while on unpaid leave, as the company said that doing so would be considered a fraudulent claim, according to Walker. 

United employees are unable to access their 401(k) while on unpaid leave, Walker said, explaining that people will lose their homes and go bankrupt while still having money in the bank because they can't access it. They also can't refinance their mortgages because they're on unpaid leave, so they aren't receiving any income. 

United's original COVID vaccine policy included an anti-retaliation clause that said, "United prohibits retaliation, which includes threatening or taking adverse action against an individual, for, among other things, requesting an accommodation under this policy."

Walker, however, argues that placing unvaccinated employees on indefinite unpaid leave is retaliatory. 

Walker also referenced United acknowledging that there's small likelihood that anyone on an airplane could catch COVID. In October 2020, the airline partnered with the Defense Department in a study that found there is only a 0.003% chance that particles from a passenger sitting next to another passenger on a plane wearing a mask will enter the person's breathing space, making COVID exposure "virtually non-existent," ABC News reported.

In September, United employees sought a preliminary injunction against the vaccine mandate in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas. They were denied, but the judge in the case found the employees' arguments "compelling and convincing at this stage." This was cited in Judge James Ho's dissent in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which in a 2-1 vote also decided against the United employees. 

Ho noted the district court's conclusion that United's mandate "reflects an apathy, if not antipathy, for many of its employees' concerns and a dearth of toleration for those expressing diversity of thought."

"United's CEO, Scott Kirby, told employees in a company town hall meeting that 'very few' religious exemptions to the vaccine mandate would be granted," Ho wrote, "and that anyone who even attempted to request one would be 'putting [their] job on the line.'"

Citing the district court, Ho wrote, "United has demonstrated a 'calloused approach to' and 'apparent disdain for' people of faith." 

Ho also noted a recent finding by the 5th Circuit Court in its ruling against the Biden OSHA vaccine mandate "that irreparable injury results when employees are forced to choose between their beliefs and their benefits."

The next step in the legal process is the merits panel of the 5th Circuit Court, which will consider Ho's dissent, Walker said. So far, the circuit court has had only a procedural hearing on the lawsuit, but the next panel will be focusing on the merits of the case. 

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) blasted United CEO Scott Kirby during a hearing with airline CEOs last week, singling him out for a company policy that drastically differs from those of competitors American, Southwest, and Delta. Cruz said AE4HF told him they represent over 2,000 United employees placed on unpaid leave after seeking exemptions, 331 of whom are pilots. 

Cruz related the story of a United pilot of two decades who received a religious exemption from the mandate "and was subsequently placed on leave with no pay and no benefits, including no medical insurance."

"Now," Cruz continued, the pilot's wife, "who relies on her husband's insurance, has had to postpone a necessary surgery with no idea when she'll be able to reschedule because she has no idea when her husband will be able to fly again."

Kirby told Cruz that United is enforcing the vaccine mandate "for safety." He added, "We believe it saved lives."

Cruz asked Kirby if his competitors were unsafe. "I think that the world is safer," he replied. "For us — I made the decision for United — I'll let my competitors speak for themselves — I made the decision for United that getting everyone vaccinated would save lives and would create a safer environment for all the other workers."

While the issue of COVID-19 vaccines has been hotly contested, federal and state health officials say vaccines and boosters can keep most patients from getting the most serious cases of COVID-19 leading to hospitalization and death. However, they also acknowledge the vaccine protections wane over time and allow for breakthrough infections in many Americans.

Federal officials also note the COVID-19 vaccines have generated a larger than usual number of adverse reaction reports, including suspected deaths and some heart inflammation, and that concerns have grown about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and its tie to blood clotting. Federal officials say that serious vaccine reactions are still fairly rare and in most cases their protections outweigh the risks.

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