Roughly 2,000 out of the 67,000 US United employees, or less than 3%, requested an exemption from the mandate for religious or medical reasons. United said even if their requests for medical exemptions were granted, the workers would be placed on medical leave, which may or may not include some portion of their pay, depending upon their union contract. Employees whose requests for religious exemptions were granted would be placed on indefinite unpaid leave but retain their seniority rights if they returned to the company at an unspecified time in the future.
The prospect of being placed on leave prompted six of those employees who requested either a religious or medical exemption, or both, to file a federal lawsuit last month seeking to stay on the payroll. United had originally agreed to put their leaves on hold while the case was argued, but on Tuesday US Judge Mark Pittman in Fort Worth, Texas, issued a temporary restraining order to keep them on the company payroll while he hears arguments in the case.
“The court is not currently ruling on the merits of the parties’ arguments on these points,” Pittman wrote in his order. “Rather the court seeks simply to avoid the risk of irreparable harm to the parties and to maintain the status quo while the court holds an evidentiary hearing.”
United (UAL) said only 232 employees out 67,000 US staff members face termination for not getting a vaccine by the September 28 deadline to comply with the rule. That’s roughly one-third of 1% of the company’s staff, and down from an initial estimate of about 600 unvaccinated employees. The suit does not involve the unvaccinated employees who did not seek an exemption and are therefore still facing termination.
Mark Paoletta, the attorney for the plaintiffs in the case, said he was grateful for the ruling, even it it was only temporary.
“United Airlines’ refusal to provide reasonable accommodations to its vaccine mandate violates the federal civil rights protections of our clients, the hard working men and women at United,” said Paoletta. “We look forward to our clients’ rights be permanently protected.”
United issued a statement defending its vaccine mandate.
“Vaccine requirements work and nearly all of United’s U.S. employees have chosen to get a shot. For a number of our employees who were approved for an accommodation, we’re working to put options in place that reduce the risk to their health and safety, including new testing regimens, temporary job reassignments and masking protocols.”
Two other major airlines, American Airlines (AAL) and Southwest (LUV), said they are moving to impose their own vaccine mandates on US employees to comply with proposed federal rules requiring vaccines for all employees of federal government contractors. But pilots unions at those two airlines are objecting to the mandates.
The ruling comes the day after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an order prohibiting employers in that state from requiring employees to get a vaccine. Both American and Southwest say they are moving forward with their vaccine mandates because they believe federal regulations have greater legal authority than any state rule.
— CNN’s Gregory Wallace contributed to this report