United Airlines announced placing vax-exempt employees for religious reasons on unpaid leave, then the clean-up began

AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

On Monday, United Airlines got tough with its employees who are holding out on getting the COVID-19 vaccine. The message was to get the vaccine or be terminated. For those employees who receive an exemption due to religious reasons, they will be placed on unpaid leave. Employees with medical exemptions may or may not be paid, as it is up to their contracts.

The strong measure being taken by the airline seems to be skepticism over using religion as a reason for vaccine exemption. There are no major religious denominations on record that have voiced opposition to the vaccine, despite some clergy who have done so. Even the Christian Science Church which teaches its members to use prayer instead of medicine has not come out against the vaccines. The church released a statement that was sent out to its members calling on them to show “respect for public health authorities and conscientious obedience to the laws of the land, including those requiring vaccination.” So, United’s policy became one that says sure, there are exemptions available for employees who don’t want to be vaccinated, but those exemptions come with a cost to that employee. The airline justifies it by saying that it is to protect customers and employees alike due to the severeness of the virus. Religious exemptions are being granted on a case-by-case basis.

The company’s vaccine mandate is much tougher than those imposed by many other companies, or the ones announced by President Joe Biden Thursday. The federal mandate, and many already announced at other companies, give employees a choice between getting vaccinated or getting weekly Covid tests. At United, it’s essentially vaccination or termination.

Although United is granting accommodations for employees who have a valid medical or religious reason not to get vaccinated, it disclosed this week there would be costs for those who cite their religious belief as a reason not to be vaccinated.

“Given our focus on safety and the steep increases in Covid infections, hospitalizations and deaths, all employees whose request is approved will be placed on temporary, unpaid personal leave on October 2 while specific safety measures for unvaccinated employees are instituted,” said United’s memo to employees. “Given the dire statistics…we can no longer allow unvaccinated people back into the workplace until we better understand how they might interact with our customers and their vaccinated co-workers.”

“We are working hard to ensure the safety of our employees and customers while accommodating those employees who have sincerely held religious beliefs,” said the airline’s statement.

All non-management employees are represented by a union. 67,000 active US employees are covered by the mandate. Back in August when the original policy from the airline was announced, union officials didn’t object. Now a pilot’s union, for example, is looking into legal and contractual options to support the pilots from unpaid leave. The Teamsters union that represents mechanics went further on the vaccine mandate and said it “does not accept United Airlines’ position on this issue.” The EEOC advises employers they can impose vaccine mandates but claims of religious objections should not be disputed by the employer. The request for a religious exemption should generally be considered a legitimate request.

While placed on unpaid leave, United employees don’t receive other benefits like medical insurance. They can keep coverage through paying the full premium for Cobra coverage. They maintain their seniority during unpaid leave. Seniority is important in the airline industry because it determines compensation and hours offered to work.

Workers placed on leave due to a medical exemption will be placed on medical leave which may or may not include pay, depending on their union contract.

Today a bit of a clean-up is happening by the airline. United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby says that unvaccinated employees due to exemptions won’t be interacting with customers. He doing a little softening up of the words being used. Gone is the get vaccinated or get fired insinuation. Now it is employees will be able to come back to work when United feels it’s safe to do so. Workers may just be reassigned to work somewhere where they won’t interact with customers. No specification on what “safe” will look like, though. We know that COVID is here to stay and we just have to get used to living with it, like other infectious viruses. If safe means the virus is eradicated, then go ahead and tell the vaccine skeptics to go on and look for work elsewhere.

“For all of our customer-facing employees … for those exemptions we are going to work to find some other place for people to work, but, alternatively, they are going to go on temporary leave on Sept. 28,” Kirby said in an interview on CNN’s “New Day” Thursday

The employees will be allowed back when the company feels it is “safe for them to be back in the workforce,” he said.

Kirby won’t say if he’s in favor of mandating air passengers to be vaccinated before flying but he does support Biden’s mandate to businesses with more than 100 employees. He said the mandate is “probably the way to get a high percentage of this country vaccinated.” Dr. Fauci recently said he is in favor of vaccine mandates for domestic travel, so take Kirby’s support of Biden as support for Fauci’s opinion. Kirby admits the vaccine mandate has led to “a number” of workers’ resignations. He says, though that the employees with exemptions are only a small portion of the workforce.

It will be interesting to see if being put on unpaid leave results in a worker shortage in an industry already struggling to get back to normal pre-pandemic employment levels. United’s is the most severe of vaccine requirements. Delta Airlines reports that 4,000 employees decided to get the vaccine after a $200 surcharge on its health care plan for those who weren’t inoculated against COVID-19 was announced.