Attorneys from Schaerr | Jaffe LLP in Washington, DC, along with attorneys John Sullivan, S|L Law, PLCC, in Cedar Hill, Texas, and Robert Wiegand and Melissa Swindle, Stewart Wiegand & Owens, in Dallas, Texas, filed a class-action lawsuit in the Northern District of Texas on Tuesday challenging United Airlines' discriminatory and retaliatory actions stemming from the airline's refusal to grant any reasonable religious or medical accommodations from its COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Plaintiffs also filed a motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction.
On August 6, 2021, United instituted a first of its kind company-wide vaccine mandate, requiring all U.S.-based employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 within a short period. While the company permits employees to submit requests for reasonable accommodations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), the airline's CEO recently made multiple public statements threatening to terminate any employee who requests a reasonable accommodation from the vaccine mandate. Unsurprisingly, employees who requested accommodations are now facing termination or the potential of years of unpaid leave. The only other option United has offered these employees is: lose your career or forsake your religious beliefs and health. Those options are not lawful or reasonable, and Plaintiffs represent a larger class of employees bringing a civil rights lawsuit to challenge United's failure to engage in the reasonable accommodation process.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit are six United employees who requested medical and/or religious accommodations from the vaccine mandate. Without justification or reason, the company effectively denied every accommodation request, offering only a “reasonable accommodation” of unpaid leave for up to 6 years, which includes immediate cessation of income or retirement benefits, and no medical insurance or access to long-term disability. This situation presents Plaintiffs with a “no-win” scenario; they can either stay true to their faith and forfeit their careers and benefits, or violate their conscience and endanger their health by succumbing to United's coercive mandate.
Federal law precludes an employer from failing to engage in an interactive process when an employee requests a reasonable accommodation. Under Title VII and the ADA, United must provide employees with reasonable accommodations. Plaintiffs argue that this could include mask wearing, periodic testing for COVID-19 antibodies, or periodic COVID-19 testing in line with the Federal Government's recent announcement of its forthcoming COVID-19 vaccine mandate offering periodic testing as an alternative to vaccination. Such reasonable accommodations are already accounted for by the European Union's vaccine mandate, which accepts a negative COVID-19 test or proof of a previous COVID-19 infection as alternatives.
United's insistence on a “vaccination-or-else” policy flagrantly contradicts its actions. For example, the company's vaccine mandate does not apply to pilots of other airlines who are allowed to ride on the airplanes, oftentimes in the cockpit jump seats, while traveling to and from their domiciles. The policy also does not apply to any passengers on United's aircraft or to any of United's regional partners who fly United customers on shorter routes. Finally, it does not apply to any of United's foreign-based workers, including its London-based flight attendants who regularly work onboard flights with U.S.-based flight attendants. Thus, while United permits many individuals to travel onboard its aircraft without a COVID-19 vaccination, it will not allow its own employees seeking religious or medical accommodations to continue working in their current jobs, as they have faithfully done since the inception of the pandemic, even with mitigation measures in place.
By threatening its employees with years-long unpaid leaves of absence, serious harms loom for the Plaintiffs, including imminent homelessness; foregoing life-saving medical treatments due to the loss of insurance; severe mental anguish and distress at the thought of being unemployed in today's economy; and, the disruption of their children's schooling and college education.
Federal law requires employers to respect sincerely held religious beliefs, even if corporations disagree with them. Likewise, no employee with a medical condition should ever be forced to disobey a doctor's orders to preserve their career. To be clear: Plaintiffs do not challenge United's vaccine mandate. They simply ask the court to order United to obey federal law and grant reasonable accommodations to employees with legitimate religious or medical reasons for requesting relief.
Accordingly, Plaintiffs, on behalf of a class likely to exceed 2,000 employees, ask the U.S. District Court, Northern District of Texas to grant a temporary restraining order preventing United from effectively terminating them. The Plaintiffs further ask that United follow the law by engaging in the interactive process required under Title VII, and grant them reasonable accommodations affording them the right to exercise their faith and/or preserve their health concerns while employed.
Employees of United Airlines with questions about religious or medical accommodation requests may find additional information at https://www.ae4hf.com.