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United Airlines must delay its vaccine mandate for workers seeking an exemption

In this Oct. 14, 2020 file photo, United Airlines employees work at ticket counters in Terminal 1 at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago.
In this Oct. 14, 2020 file photo, United Airlines employees work at ticket counters in Terminal 1 at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago.

A federal judge in Texas ordered United Airlines to temporarily halt its plan to put unvaccinated employees on unpaid leave if they have requested an exemption from the company's COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

United Airlines announced Aug. 6 that the Chicago-based airline was requiring all 67,000 of its U.S.-based employees to be vaccinated. At the time, the airline said about 90% of pilots and 80% of flight attendants had already been vaccinated.

But for the small portion of employees that refused to get a coronavirus vaccine and requested either a medical or religious exemption from United, the company said it would place those workers on unpaid leave.

Six employees filed a federal lawsuit over this policy arguing unpaid leave is not a reasonable accommodation, but rather an adverse employment action.

U.S. District Judge Mark Pittman responded to that lawsuit Tuesday by ordering a temporary restraining order on United to hold off on removing any worker requesting those exemptions from the payroll. That's just until he can hear arguments in the case at a later date.

Pittman's temporary restraining order expires on Oct. 26.

United Airlines issued a statement, according to reports:

"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."

Fights continue over COVID-19 mandates

People and teachers protest against COVID-19 vaccine mandates outside the Manhattan Federal Court Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021, in New York.
Eduardo Munoz Avarez / AP
People and teachers protest against COVID-19 vaccine mandates outside the Manhattan Federal Court on Tuesday in New York.

American Airlines, Alaska Airlines and JetBlue also joined United Airlines in requiring employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Research has shown that workplaces with vaccine mandates are seeing vaccination rates of 90% or higher, where even the most hesitant have chosen to get the shots.

But a minority of people are engaging in battles over these mandates as they pop up in the workplace as well as in other facets of everyday life.

Major cities including Los Angeles are implementing strict proof-of-vaccine ordinances for restaurants, gyms and other establishments. Los Angeles County employees were also required to be vaccinated by Oct. 1.

But LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said he has no intention of carrying out the mandate.

The world of sports has also been affected by a major star's refusal to get vaccinated.

Brooklyn Nets All-Star guard Kyrie Irving won't be allowed to practice or play in games, likely due to New York City's COVID-19 vaccine mandate for professional athletes. Irving dodged several questions from reporters earlier this month about his vaccination status.

Pushback against these mandates is a global issue as well.

This weekend, Italy's strict requirement for workers to show proof of a coronavirus vaccine pushed opponents of the policy to protest. Demonstrations turned violent as some marchers caused damage across Rome.

United Airlines has said that, for the most part, its vaccine mandate has been a success. The company has said that more than 99% of its U.S.-based employees had met the company's requirement to get vaccinated or have applied for a religious or medical exemption.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.