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Fifth Circuit rules ‘ongoing coercion’ by United Airlines of its vaccine mandate

United Airlines employees who are suing the airline for its COVID-19 vaccine mandate just got a second chance to make their case. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a district court judge on February 17 to reconsider after he initially denied the employees’ request to block the policy.

Back in September, eight Texas-based United Airlines employees sued the airline over its vaccine policy, which caused employees without the COVID-19 vaccination or a religious/medical exemption to be fired. But those with exemptions were also required to either get vaccinated or be placed on indefinite, unpaid leave and lose benefits. 

Roughly 2,000 United Airlines employees have religious or medical exemptions, according to United Airlines. Those with exemptions come from various roles, including pilots, flight attendants, and customer service agents. 

In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs alleged they were not provided “reasonable accommodation” for a religious or medical exemption. 

They cited Weber v. Roadway Express, which states that “an employer has the statutory obligation to make reasonable accommodations for the religious observances of its employees, but is not required to incur undue hardship.” 

The plaintiffs attested that indefinite unpaid leave is not a reasonable accommodation.

“United’s actions have left Plaintiffs with the impossible choice of either taking the COVID-19 vaccine, at the expense of their religious beliefs and their health, or losing their livelihoods,” the lawsuit said.

But United Airlines claims the opposite. “At present, none of our accommodated employees are required to remain on unpaid leave; they all have other alternatives,” United Media Relations told the Lynnwood Times. 

United also outlined some of the additional measures it has taken:

Our “non-customer facing” employees . . . remain at work in their regular positions, subject to masking and testing requirements. Others, including customer service representatives, were transitioned to temporary assignments that do not require direct interaction with customers. Similar measures were not possible for flight crew—pilots and flight attendants—due to their unique working conditions as well as constraints imposed by union contracts and federal regulations. As a result, they were placed on temporary unpaid leave, but they all have preferential consideration to available non-customer facing jobs at United.

United Airlines did not discuss the employees who were fired outright. Furthermore, pilots, flight attendants, and customer service agents were not given the option for masking and testing as an alternative. 

Despite the airline’s claim that all employees have been given alternative accommodations, several plaintiffs – including customer-facing employees – assert that the only option they received was unpaid leave.

As a result, the employees requested that the court put United’s vaccination policy on hold throughout the case. U.S. Fifth Circuit Court Judge Mark Pittman denied their request, claiming the employees failed to demonstrate that “they would suffer imminent, irreparable harm” if the policy be upheld. 

Ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit Court, which included Judge Jerry Smith, a President Ronald Reagan appointee, Jennifer Walker Elrod, a President George W. Bush appointee, and Andy Oldham, a President Donald Trump appointee, stated that the employees continue to face coercion and loss of livelihood, both of which are harmful, and ordered Judge Pittman to reconsider the request. 

“Plaintiffs are being subjected to ongoing coercion based on their religious beliefs. That coercion is harmful in and of itself and cannot be remedied after the fact,” the court stated. “Because that harm is irreparable, we reverse the district court.”

The airline’s tactics of coercion, according to the judges, include the threat of suspension and loss of benefits such as medical coverage, which disproportionately affect those with medical exemptions due to pre-existing conditions.

The airline also questioned the sincerity of religious views, in some instances requesting a statement from a religious leader or third party attesting to the faith of the employees. 

In some cases, employees were required to provide their vaccination records and were questioned why their previous vaccinations were not a violation of religious beliefs.

The judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit Court presiding over the case also detailed how the airline sent postcards – not letters – to unvaccinated employees reminding them to turn in evidence of their vaccination. The plaintiffs “credibly contend,” according to the judges, that these were coercion tactics in order to “broadcast employees’ unvaccinated status to family members and enlist those family members in coaxing employees to receive the vaccine.”

Some employees also explained that when they attempted to submit their exemption through the airline’s online accommodation request system – its only approved mechanism for request – the system prevented them from doing so. 

Implications if court’s decision in upheld against United Airlines

The federal court certainly sees these issues as a matter of coercion and religious discrimination, but whether Judge Pittman agrees is another matter. However, he will now be required to revisit his decision with these alleged “coercion tactics” in mind.

Furthermore, the judges’ description of coercion and religious discrimination could help the employees in their case against the airline. And if the employees can prove they were coerced or faced religious discrimination, the airline could see more lawsuits in the future – and other companies that employed similar tactics could, too. 

Editor’s Note: Featured picture by @flyarizona on instagram.

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