The key question at the heart of a United Airlines COVID vaccine policy lawsuit

United Airlines (UAL) began laying off some unvaccinated United States-based workers on Tuesday. However, the airline agreed to postpone the plans. put another group of unvaccinated workers on mostly unpaid leave after requesting medical or religious exemptions from its mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy.

Six of these exempt workers challenge United’s policy in a federal lawsuit in Texas, which employment lawyers believe will likely depend on the nature of the alternatives United offers to employees who have requested exemptions.

“You can have a mandatory vaccination policy; however, employees may be entitled to reasonable accommodation based on sincere religious belief and / or disability, if this does not place an undue burden on the employer, ”LaKeisha Caton, an attorney for Pryor Cashman, told Yahoo Finance.

An “impossible choice”

The lawsuit, an alleged class action suit that the plaintiffs estimate to include more than 2,000 workers, is brought by two captains, one flight attendant, one customer service representative, one station operations representative and one aircraft technician. The group is seeking a preliminary injunction and a permanent injunction that would prevent United from implementing plans to place them on indefinite paid or unpaid leave.

“United’s actions have left complainants with the impossible choice of taking the COVID-19 vaccine, to the detriment of their religious beliefs and health, or of losing their livelihood,” the lawsuit says.

Employees claim United failed to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by failing to engage in legally required communications with employees who are granted medical or religious exemptions. The lawsuit also claims that United violated federal law by enforcing its policy against unvaccinated workers who have antibodies to COVID-19, and by failing to exempt workers from unspecified conditions of paid or unpaid leave.

“Nothing in the policy suggests that employees will be fired for requesting or receiving an exemption,” the complaint says, saying the unspecified conditions, accompanied by loss of health insurance and other benefits, amounted to a dismissal.

United Airlines pilot Steve Lindland receives a COVID-19 vaccine from RN Sandra Manella at United’s on-site clinic at O’Hare International Airport on March 9, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson / Getty Images)

United says workers with medical exemption could use paid sick leave and workers with religious exemption would be granted unpaid leave. The complaint alleges that at least one medically exempt worker was instead offered unpaid leave and that other employees were prevented from seeking medical and religious exemptions.

Since filing the complaint, United has suspended plans to begin dismissing workers who submitted accommodation requests.

Responding to the complaint, a United spokesperson said the company “will continue to vigorously defend” its policy. “Vaccine requirements have been around for decades and have served to ensure the safety of airline employees and customers,” the spokesperson added.

Opposing the injunction request, United said the ADA does not allow such an extraordinary solution and workers could instead get damages if they prove intentional discrimination. The complainants, for their part, assert that their loss of income would have serious consequences, notably for one complainant, homelessness.

Are United’s accommodations reasonable?

For now, professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania Jasmine harris said the judge is facing the decision whether or not to grant the more immediate demand of exempt workers to prevent United from cutting their incomes and benefits. Whatever the judge’s decision, she said, the legal analysis will offer insight into the fundamental legal issues of the case.

These questions include whether, under ADA or Title VII, the accommodations would impose “undue hardship” on United, and whether the accommodations are considered reasonable.

Doron Dorfman, professor at Syracuse University law school, told Yahoo Finance that the indefinite nature of United’s offer to keep exempt workers on leave could pose a challenge to its defense of “reasonableness.”

“If I had to advise United, I would do it year after year, or for six months,” said Dorfman, explaining that a judge might find longer terms unreasonable.

Caton drew a similar conclusion, explaining that a general lack of unpaid leave could potentially indicate that the company has not fulfilled its legal obligation to engage in stronger communications with exempt workers.

“I’m not surprised they took a break from it”, Cato said: “Because, in practice, for these employees … automatically put on unpaid leave, it begs the question: is this really a reasonable accommodation?” . ”

United’s obligations are minimal

Experts point out that religious and medical exceptions are also obstacles for workers due to legal limitations that protect employers from undue hardship.

Religious accommodations, explains Dorfman, impose the most minimum requirements on employers, where the standard that the employer must meet is even lower than under the ADA.

Under the standard, courts have confirmed the rights of employers to avoid accommodation measures such as those which compromise workplace safety, are too costly and reduce the efficiency of the workplace.

“Basically, this means that an employer doesn’t need to do anything other than the minimum to accommodate a person for religious accommodation purposes,” Dorfman said.

However, Harris notes that employers rarely find a winning argument if they rely solely on the position that an accommodation is too expensive.

Medical accommodations, on the other hand, are further limited to workers with a qualifying condition, that is, a condition that directly compromises their ability to comply with the policy.

“The definition of disability is actually quite broad under ADA,” said Cato, explaining that it can include a variety of medical conditions. “That being said, you must show that you are disabled and that this disability entitles you to reasonable accommodation to be vaccinated. So it’s going to be problematic for these employees if they can’t show it, because that burden is on them. “

United will likely argue that there are no reasonable accommodations that would allow workers to perform their essential functions, according to Harris. An unvaccinated worker without proven immunity and who needs to interact with other workers or the public, for example, could threaten a safe work environment.

United announced its policy to workers based in the United States on August 6 and later confirmed that proof of full vaccination would be required by October 31.

United on Thursday said 99% of its US-based employees chose to be vaccinated, excluding those who requested accommodation. Multiple news reports As of Thursday, the number of unvaccinated US-based workers threatened with dismissal under its policy had risen from 593 to 320. A hearing on the preliminary injunction is scheduled for October 8.

Alexis Keenan is a legal reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow Alexis on Twitter @alexiskweed.

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