United Airlines employees requesting medical and religious exemptions from their company’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate have asked a Texas federal judge to grant them class certification, arguing that the company has uniformly violated the rights of thousands of exemption-seeking workers.
Six airline employees asked U.S. District Judge Mark Pittman on Monday to grant class certification for two types of workers: those who deal with customers and those who don’t. The named plaintiffs argue that the company’s offer of unpaid leave with no benefits to vaccine holdouts essentially amounts to termination from the company – a harm that would apply uniformly to all proposed class members.
“This policy of relying on indefinite unpaid leave as a supposed ‘accommodation’ affects all provisional class members in a similar fashion, and all have been harmed essentially the same way – they are faced with the impossible choice of risking their livelihoods or risking their conscience or health,” said the plaintiffs.
The named plaintiffs, which include two flight captains, a flight attendant, a customer service representative and two others, argue that all United employees, both customer-facing and non-customer-facing, are threatened by unpaid leave and thus have the same claims against the company. There could be more than 2,000 United employees in the class according to the motion.
Customer-facing employees are only offered unpaid leave, and while non-customer-facing can be provided with temporary accommodations, United has said these can be rescinded at any moment and replaced with unpaid leave, according to the employees.
“United decided that the only available accommodation to its vaccine mandate was indefinite unpaid leave,” the plaintiffs argue, adding that unpaid leave is an undesirable and unreasonable accommodation to both customer-facing and non-customer-facing United employees.
In August, as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, United announced that it would mandate that all of its U.S. employees in company facilities receive the COVID-19 vaccine or obtain an exemption.
United employees filed a proposed class suit against the airline, claiming that it had failed to accommodate disabled or religious employees who were successfully exempted from the company’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. The employees, however, claim that the company’s accommodation of temporary unpaid leave is a violation of the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In October, Judge Pittman granted a temporary restraining order that blocked the airline from placing employees who obtained religious or medical exemptions from being placed on unpaid leave. The federal judge extended the restraining order to Nov. 8.