United Airlines has been the most aggressive among US airlines when it comes to requiring employees to be vaccinated. The airline is now taking it a step further, and is putting employees who requested a religious exemption for vaccination on unpaid leave.
United’s update on religious exemptions
In early August, United Airlines revealed that it will require all employees to be vaccinated, with the only exception being for “a very narrow reasonable accommodation process (as required by law) for religious and medical exemptions.” This new policy kicks in as of early October, and there’s an interesting update on that front.
First of all, United Airlines has seen considerable progress when it comes to employees getting vaccinated. Since the initial announcement of the vaccine mandate in early August, over half of unvaccinated employees have gotten vaccinated. But that still leaves a considerable number of unvaccinated employees.
As of October 2, 2021, United Airlines will put employees who requested a religious exemption from the coronavirus vaccine requirement on temporary, unpaid personal leave. Employees who get approved for religious exemptions will only be able to return to work after new testing and safety procedures are in place.
United Airlines is still working on a process for approving these religious exemptions, but once that happens:
- Employees who get denied for religious exemptions must be vaccinated within five weeks or they’ll be fired
- Employees who get approved for religious exemptions will only be allowed to return to work once “the pandemic meaningfully recedes”
As the airline explains this in a memo to employees:
“Given the dire statistics listed above, we can no longer allow unvaccinated people back into the workplace until we better understand how they might interact with our customers and their vaccinated coworkers.”
This is a bold position for United to take
Religion is a tricky thing. We have religious freedom in the United States, which is great, and there’s not any one philosophy that anyone has to hold. Everyone can believe in whatever they’d like to believe in — some people use religion to spread love and inclusion, others use it to promote hate and division, and others use it to hold some very strange positions.
People can more or less attribute whatever they’d like to their religion without being questioned. But now we’re at a tricky crossroads, when public health is on the line. Is it reasonable to suggest that anyone’s religion should prevent them from getting vaccinated? Well, for better or worse, there’s nobody who decides what’s “reasonable” in someone else’s religion.
United is framing this in an interesting way. The airline isn’t telling people that they can’t hold their beliefs, but rather that the risk of allowing those people to come to work is too high. Ultimately I’m sure United will face some significant lawsuits from employees here. It’s not often you see companies essentially challenge someone’s claim of a religious accommodation, but that’s exactly what United is doing here. I’m curious to see how this plays out.
United Airlines is requiring employees to be vaccinated, aside from a narrow set of exemptions for religious or medical reasons. It seems that a good number of employees may have requested a religious exemption for vaccination, and now the airline will be putting those employees on unpaid leave.
The airline claims that this is being done while processes for accommodating these employees are figured out, though I think it’s safe to say that this goes beyond that, and is intended to send a message. How that works out remains to be seen…