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United Worker Fails to Halt Covid Vaccine Mandate, for Now (1)

Oct. 15, 2021, 2:26 PMUpdated: Oct. 15, 2021, 7:35 PM

United Airlines Inc.'s policy that mandates all its employees be vaccinated against Covid-19 and places those with religious exemptions on unpaid leave can go into effect, a federal court in Colorado said.

The decision is at odds with a recent opinion by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, which issued a temporary restraining order against the policy in a similar challenge.

United’s employees were given until Oct. 15 to get vaccinated unless they had a valid medical reason or seriously held religious belief against doing so. In that instance, they would be put on unpaid leave until proper protocols are fully developed to accommodate their status.

Jaymee Barrington works at Denver International Airport and “contends that her sincerely held Christian faith prevents her from taking” the vaccine, the court said. She was granted a religious exemption, but sought a temporary restraining order against the policy because under its terms she risks losing her job if her position is filled while she’s on leave.

Barrington claimed that the policy discriminates against her because of her religious beliefs and sought an accommodation that she undergo periodic testing, wear a mask, do social distancing, or be transferred to another position.

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act requires United to accommodate Barrington’s sincerely held religious belief, the opinion by Judge Regina M. Rodriguez of the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado said. But employers aren’t required to adopt overly burdensome accommodations, it said.

United doesn’t have to adopt Barrington’s accommodations, the court said. Vaccinated employees who come in contact with unvaccinated coworkers can still catch the coronavirus, and the company would have to hire and train more employees to implement the accommodation, it said.

United also doesn’t have to create a new position to accommodate Barrington, the court said.

Although Barrington might not like the accommodation offered, United will likely be able to show that it’s reasonable, the court said.

Barrington also can’t establish that she’ll be irreparably harmed if she isn’t granted a temporary restraining order, the court said. United acknowledged that if she prevails in her suit, she’ll be entitled to reinstatement, back pay, back benefits, and other proven economic damages, it said.

Enforcement of a policy that protects employees from the coronavirus and conforms to government guidance is in the public interest, the court said.

John R. Olsen of Louisville, Colo., represented Barrington. Jones Day and Reed Smith LLP represented United.

The case is Barrington v. United Airlines Inc., D. Colo., No. 21-cv-2602-RMR-STV, 10/14/21.

(Adds details about plaintiff in fourth paragraph. A previous version corrected company's name in first and final paragraphs. )

To contact the reporter on this story: Bernie Pazanowski in Washington at bpazanowski@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Patrick L. Gregory at pgregory@bloomberglaw.com

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