United Airlines agreed to temporarily halt its plans to place employees who submit exemption requests from its COVID-19 vaccine requirement on unpaid leave, according to attorneys representing employees in a lawsuit.
United said in August that more than half of its 67,000 U.S.-based employees who weren't vaccinated would be required to get the vaccine by Sept. 27 or be placed on unpaid leave by Oct. 2, but made an exception for those with medical and religious reasons, which employees argue has not been the case.
Six employee plaintiffs requested a temporary restraining order against the mandate in a lawsuit filed last week, arguing that United has failed to approve accommodation requests regarding the vaccine and instead offered six years of unpaid leave for those wishing not to get the vaccine.
"We are pleased that under a threat of a Temporary Restraining Order, United Airlines postponed its heartless and unlawful vaccine mandate that would impose on approximately 2,000 employees the unconscionable choice of violating their religious faith, violating their doctors' orders, or essentially losing their job," Mark Paoletta, a partner at Schaerr Jaffe LLP who is representing the employees, said in a statement.
He continued: "Now everyone can follow the court's decision to take the time and care needed to carefully consider the legitimate claims our clients have as we seek a solution that allows United to take necessary steps to combat COVID-19 while respecting the civil rights of valuable employees who have sincere religious objections or medical conditions that make them unable to take the vaccine."
No employee who submitted an accommodation request on or before Sept. 23 will be placed on leave without pay until Oct. 15, states the agreed upon terms read into the court record on Aug. 24. The temporary pause will allow the airline to process exemption requests from employees and Texas Judge Mark Pittman will hear evidence and arguments on Oct. 8. The agreement does not impact employees who did not seek accommodations.
"Safety remains our highest priority. We will continue to vigorously defend our policy - vaccine requirements have been around for decades and have served to keep airline employees and customers safe," a United spokesperson told FOX Business.
"And with the pandemic continuing to kill more than 2,000 people every day, we remain convinced that our vaccine policy saves lives. As of today, excluding employees who have submitted exemptions, 98.5% of United’s U.S. employees are vaccinated."
United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby appeared to take issue with those employees filing for exemptions, according to a video recording of an internal town hall for United pilots in August obtained by Fox News.
"By the way, there are going to be very few people who get through the medical and religious exemption. There's some pretty strict rules about that. So, I would encourage any pilot that's decided they all of a sudden, or any employee, that's all of a sudden decided I'm really religious and I'm gonna say I'm gonna [sic], you're putting your job on the line. You better be very careful about that, about doing that," said Kirby.
Attorneys from Schaerr-Jaffe, LLP of Washington, D.C., along with attorneys John Sullivan of Cedar Hill, Texas, and Robert Wiegand and Melissa Swindle of Dallas, Texas, are leading the class-action suit in the Northern District of Texas federal court.
Lawyers argue that under the Civil Rights Act, United must make reasonable accommodations for employees, which could include requiring masks and testing for unvaccinated employees. Lawyers note that even the Biden administration's recent vaccine mandate accepts COVID-19 testing as an alternative to getting vaccinated.
The plaintiffs, on behalf of a class of what attorneys believe will be around 2,000 employees, are asking for a temporary restraining order against United's plan to put unvaccinated employees on six years of unpaid leave.
A United spokesperson on Sept. 22 said the company has "been encouraged by the overwhelmingly positive response from employees across all work groups, since we announced the policy last month" and that it believes the lawsuit is "without merit."
A grassroots organization of U.S. airline employees working to defend members' religious liberties and medical freedoms called the Airline Employees 4 Health Freedom said it stands with plaintiffs exercising medical and religious rights in the lawsuit in a Tuesday statement.
"The thousands of EEOC claims we have seen thus far are hardly ‘without merit,’ and we look forward to the facts regarding an anything but reasonable accommodation process coming to light," the organization said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.