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United Vaccine Mandate Draws Religious, Disability Bias Suit (1)

Sept. 22, 2021, 2:00 PMUpdated: Sept. 22, 2021, 3:48 PM

United Airlines Inc. was hit with a federal lawsuit alleging its Covid-19 vaccine mandate for U.S. employees violates religious and disability job accommodation laws.

The policy forces workers with religious- or disability-based reasons for not wanting to be vaccinated to choose between their religious beliefs or health needs and “losing their livelihoods,” the suit filed Tuesday in federal court in Fort Worth, Texas, said.

While United has accommodated some workers, the only accommodation it’s granted has been placement on “indefinite unpaid leave,” during which they won’t accrue any sick leave or other company benefits, the suit said.

“The most effective thing we can do as an airline to protect the health and safety of all our employees is to require the vaccine—excluding the small number of people who have sought an exemption, more than 97% of our U.S. employees are vaccinated,” United told Bloomberg Law in an email Wednesday. “And we’ve been encouraged by the overwhelmingly positive response from employees across all work groups, since we announced the policy last month.”

“We’re reviewing this complaint in greater detail but at this point, we think it’s without merit,” the company said.

‘Absolute’ Policy

United CEO Scott Kirby announced the policy Aug. 6. It requires all employees to receive a vaccine within five weeks of the FDA granting full approval of a vaccine, or within five weeks after Sept. 20, “whichever came first,” the suit said.

That effective date became Sept. 20 when the FDA fully approved Pfizer’s vaccine Aug. 23, according to the suit.

“Employees are required to upload a copy of their vaccination record” to a United database by Sept. 27 or they will be terminated, the suit said.

United’s policy is “absolute” and offers no alternative for mask wearing, periodic testing, or social distancing, the six workers spearheading the suit said.

Nor is there an exception for employees who contracted Covid-19 and still are immune from the disease, they said.

That makes United’s mandate less generous than the policy announced by the U.S. government, which also permits unvaccinated employees to continue working while regularly testing for Covid-19, the suit said.

United’s mandate is also less forgiving than the policy followed by the European Union, according to the suit.

Postcards for Unvaccinated

The airline stated when it announced the mandate that United employees could seek religious- and health-based accommodations, the suit said.

But Kirby threatened employees to be careful in requesting accommodations and to not suddenly decide that they’re religious, the suit said. He said also very few employees would qualify after going through United’s religious and medical exemption process, the suit said.

United also sent postcards to employees who hadn’t yet provided proof of vaccination, putting “substantial and unconscionable pressure” on them, the suit said.

The postcards weren’t sent in envelopes, effectively broadcasting an employee’s vaccination status to anyone who saw it, according to the suit.

The online system United created to submit and manage accommodation requests was fraught with issues and only permitted employees to seek accommodation on religious or medical grounds, but not both, the suit said.

And religious accommodation requests submitted after Aug. 31 “were automatically denied as untimely,” the proposed class said.

United also improperly probed workers over the sincerity of their religious beliefs and objections to being vaccinated, the suit said. This included requiring letters from pastors or other third-parties attesting to an employee’s faith.

United has imposed the mandate on U.S. employees despite not requiring passengers to do the same, the suit said.

The airline also doesn’t require employees from other countries to be vaccinated, the suit said.

Employees of the airline’s regional partners likewise aren’t required to prove their vaccination status, nor are pilots from other airlines who ride in the “jumpseat” on United flights, the suit said.

Causes of Action: Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act; Americans with Disabilities Act.

Relief: Declarations that airline has violated Title VII and ADA; preliminary and permanent injunctions barring United from firing or placing on indefinite unpaid leave employees with religious or medical basis for seeking accommodation from mandate and denying religious or disability accommodation requests as untimely until engaging workers in interactive accommodation process; compensatory damages; back pay and front pay; punitive damages; attorneys’ fees and costs.

Potential Class Size: 2,000 or more workers. The suit was filed by six employees on behalf of three or more proposed nationwide subclasses. Two captains, an aircraft technician, a station operations representative, a customer service representative, and a flight attendant filed the lawsuit.

Attorneys: S/L Law PLLC, Stewart Wiegand & Owens PC, and Schaerr Jaffe LLP represent the proposed class.

The case is Sambrano v. United Airlines, Inc., N.D. Tex., No. 4:21-cv-01074, class complaint filed 9/21/21.

(Updated with additional reporting throughout)

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Dorrian in Washington at pdorrian@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com

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