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Court rules United Airlines can put workers with vaccine exemptions on unpaid leave

United Airlines has one of the strictest vaccine mandates in the U.S., requiring all U.S. employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 unless granted religious or medical exemptions.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
United Airlines has one of the strictest vaccine mandates in the U.S., requiring all U.S. employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 unless granted religious or medical exemptions.

A federal court in Texas has handed United Airlines a win, for now.

A group of United employees sued the airline over its policy that puts unvaccinated workers on unpaid leave if they have been granted religious or medical exemptions to its vaccine mandate. The employees said it would cause them irreparable harm.

The group, which includes two pilots, a flight attendant and an aircraft technician, had asked the court to block the policy.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Mark T. Pittman expressed sympathy toward the plaintiffs but denied their motion for a preliminary injunction.

"The Court appreciates the difficulty conscientious employees face when asserting their religious rights," he wrote. "But that difficulty does not demonstrate irreparable harm."

The decision covers roughly 2,000 United employees. United says it will work to identify roles for these workers that don't put them in close contact with customers. They can apply for and work in those roles until they can safely return to their regular jobs. Employees who choose not to take such a role will be put on leave.

"We're pleased with the court's decision," United said in a statement. "We know that the best way to keep everyone as safe as we can is for everyone to get vaccinated, as nearly all United employees have chosen to do."

The airline says it will review COVID-19 transmission and case rates every 30 days to determine when it is safe to allow unvaccinated employees to resume their original roles.

Judge Pittman took the opportunity to express displeasure with how United has handled employees who declined to be vaccinated, writing that the company's vaccine mandate "reflects an apathy, if not antipathy, for many of its employees' concerns and a dearth of toleration for those expressing diversity of thought."

United has touted the success of its mandate, noting that aside from those granted exemptions, more than 99% of employees had gotten the shots.

Meanwhile, another vaccine policy is tied up in the courts. The Biden administration's rule requiring some 84 million private-sector workers to be vaccinated or undergo weekly testing was temporarily blocked over the weekend and faces challenges in multiple U.S. circuit courts. More than two dozen states and a number of businesses and religious organizations have sued, calling the rule an overreach of government authority.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.

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