Religious accommodation or coercion?
Airline workers on forced unpaid leave score a win in court
A federal appeals court on Thursday temporarily blocked a United Airlines policy forcing some workers with religious exemptions to the company’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate to take unpaid, indefinite leave.
In a 2-1 opinion, a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a federal judge’s ruling that workers had not shown the mandate caused them “irreparable harm.” The court’s majority disagreed, finding that a pilot and flight attendant who sought religious accommodations were “actively being coerced to violate their religious convictions,” a harm that, unlike loss of pay or benefits, could not be remedied by a later court award.
“United has presented plaintiffs with two options: violate their religious convictions or lose all pay and benefits indefinitely,” concluded the majority opinion by Circuit Judges Jennifer Walker Elrod, a George W. Bush appointee, and Trump appointee Andrew Oldham. “That is an impossible choice for plaintiffs who want to remain faithful but must put food on the table.”
United Airlines’ policy, implemented in August 2021 during the height of the delta coronavirus surge, required employees to vaccinate within two months or seek an exemption. The company said it would work with exempted employees to “determine whether a reasonable accommodation can be provided that does not create an undue hardship for United and/or does not pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others in the workplace or to the employee.”
Circuit Judge Jerry Smith, a Reagan appointee, filed a dissent in Thursday’s ruling, slamming the majority for ignoring court precedents under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The provision requires employers to make only reasonable accommodation for objecting employees, something he said the airline did by offering other jobs to workers.
“In its alacrity to play CEO of a multinational corporation, the majority shatters every dish in the china shop,” Smith wrote.
But the majority noted that not all employees got the option of another job. Some, like the flight attendant and pilot in the case, were offered only unpaid, indefinite leave.
The opinion was limited to the United Airlines case and did not set a precedent for others, although it could influence other courts. The majority limited the ruling’s reach, cautioning that they were not deciding whether United or any other business could impose a vaccine mandate or whether the workers were ultimately entitled to an order blocking the mandate. Yet the ruling could influence companies considering vaccine mandates.
After the ruling, United Airlines dug in, saying in a statement obtained by the Associated Press that it would continue to defend the mandate. It said most employees could continue to work provided they mask up and test. The company claimed customer-facing employees like pilots, flight attendants, and station agents could opt for other positions that don’t require public contact, yet that statement seems to conflict with the position the airline has taken in this case.
No federal law requires businesses to implement a vaccine mandate. In January, the Supreme Court struck down an Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule that would have required companies of 100 or more employees to implement a vaccination and testing regime. But some larger companies implemented their own rules.
The case now heads back to the U.S. District Court to consider whether the employees are entitled to a permanent block on the vaccine mandate.
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