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United Airlines Employee Lawsuit Challenges Company Over Vaccine Exemptions

A group of six United Airlines Holdings Inc. UAL 2.77% employees sued the airline over its Covid-19 vaccine mandate, alleging that the airline hasn’t made reasonable accommodations for those seeking religious and medical exemptions.

The suit, filed Tuesday in federal court in the Northern District of Texas, alleges that the company is discriminating against employees who have a religious objection to receiving the vaccine, or who qualify for accommodations on medical grounds. The employees allege that United has made it difficult for employees to seek such accommodations and effectively terminates those who secure them.

United said in August that it would require all U.S. employees to be vaccinated against Covid-19 or face termination, making it the first major airline and one of the first large U.S. companies to announce such a requirement.

The employees’ legal challenge shows the difficult decisions companies face as they develop and enforce new policies around Covid-19 vaccinations. United Chief Executive Scott Kirby has said he believes requiring vaccines for all employees is crucial to keeping them safe and helping raise vaccination rates.

The company has said most employees have embraced or at least accepted the mandate. United said that about 97% of its employees, excluding those who have sought exemptions, now have been vaccinated against the coronavirus.

“We’re reviewing this complaint in greater detail but at this point, we think it’s without merit,” an airline spokeswoman said.

The Biden administration this month said all companies with 100 or more employees would have to require that their workers be vaccinated or undergo at least weekly Covid-19 testing. United hasn’t given most employees the option to undergo testing as an alternative.

Under United’s policy, which goes into effect next week, workers who have been granted exemptions from vaccination would be placed on unpaid leave while the airline looks for ways to reintegrate them through enhanced testing and masking. The length of the leave will vary for different roles: Those who work on flights and interact with customers will have to stay away until the pandemic “meaningfully recedes,” the airline told employees this month.

The six employees suing United said in the lawsuit that the exemption policy effectively means they will have to choose between their beliefs or health and their livelihoods—something that could coerce some employees into taking a vaccine they object to, the employees argued. Their lawsuit asks a judge to temporarily keep the mandate from going into effect for those employees seeking a religious or medical exemption while the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission examines their claims.

“Plaintiffs do not dispute the important goal of stopping COVID-19’s spread, but it does not override United’s obligations under federal law. And it certainly does not allow United to effectively terminate all employees who requested an accommodation,” they wrote.

The employees who brought the suit include two pilots, a flight attendant, an aircraft technician, a customer service representative and a station operations representative. They seek to represent a nationwide class of United employees who have sought religious or medical exemptions that they say could include more than 2,000 others.

Last month a federal judge in Florida denied a temporary restraining order sought by a group of United pilots that sought to challenge the company’s mandate. The judge dismissed the suit earlier this month, saying it hadn’t been properly filed.

This article originally appeared on Wall Street Journal

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