A federal judge in Texas said United must pause its vaccine mandate for employees seeking a medical or religious exemption

United employee with vaccination
  • A Texas judge told United it must pause its plan to put workers who requested an exemption on leave.
  • The temporary order follows a lawsuit filed by 6 United employees who say the mandate is discriminatory.
  • United defended its policy, saying vaccinations work and most of its US workforce has gotten one.

A federal judge in Texas ordered United Airlines to temporarily pause its plan to put unvaccinated workers on leave if they requested a medical or religious exemption from complying with the company’s strict vaccine mandate.

On Tuesday, US District Judge Mark Pittman blocked United’s vaccine mandate for workers who requested an exemption, effectively keeping them on the company payroll, reported CNN. The ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed by six United employees in September who said the company’s plan to put employees who requested an exemption on temporary leave was not a reasonable accommodation, but rather a punitive action that could lead to termination.

The employees, which include two pilots and one flight attendant, accused the airline of discrimination against workers who requested accommodation, saying the policy violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Civil Rights Act, according to the lawsuit.

Pittman’s restraining order, which expires on October 26, is only a temporary halt to United’s policy while he hears more arguments on the case.

“The court is not currently ruling on the merits of the parties’ arguments on these points,” Pittman said in his order. “Rather the court seeks simply to avoid the risk of irreparable harm to the parties and to maintain the status quo while the court holds an evidentiary hearing.”

About 3% of United’s 67,000-strong US workforce, which is about 2,000 employees, requested a religious or medical accommodation in response to the company’s strict vaccine mandate. Last month, United created a new rule outlining how it would handle these cases once the deadline for getting vaccinated passed, which was September 27. According to the airline, employees with an approved exemption would be put on temporary leave until the airline established COVID safety protocols, while those whose request was denied would be fired. Worker pay would depend on their individual collective bargaining agreements.

While the order is temporary, Mark Paoletta, the attorney for the six employees, said he is pleased with the judge’s ruling.

“United Airlines’ refusal to provide reasonable accommodations to its vaccine mandate violates the federal civil rights protections of our clients, the hard working men and women at United,” said Paoletta. “We look forward to our clients’ rights be permanently protected.”

In response, United defended its mandate, emphasizing that vaccines work and only a small number of its employees are holding out on getting the shot.

“Vaccine requirements work and nearly all of United’s U.S. employees have chosen to get a shot. For a number of our employees who were approved for an accommodation, we’re working to put options in place that reduce the risk to their health and safety, including new testing regimens, temporary job reassignments and masking protocols,” United told Insider.

Over 99% of United’s US workforce has been inoculated since the company mandated the vaccine on August 6, with only 232 holding out on getting the shot. On Wednesday, United CEO Scott Kirby told CBS Mornings those unvaccinated employees are being fired for not complying with the policy.