UNCONSTITUTIONAL: United Airlines announces staff with religious exemptions to vaccine mandate will be put on unpaid leave

United Airlines announced this week that employees exempt from the company’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate for religious reasons will be put on temporary unpaid leave.

The policy is likely to be challenged in court, according to UC Hastings law professor Dorit Reiss. “It’s not exactly firing the people who have religious objections. But it’s a very serious sanction on them,” Reiss said, adding that courts would likely look to see if United was reasonably accommodating to these employees.

The airline last month said its 67,000-person U.S. workforce must be vaccinated against Covid-19 this fall, but said it would consider exemptions for religious and personal beliefs as well as medical reasons.

Yale health policy professor Jason Schwartz said considering the COVID-19 delta variant, the policy is an understandable revision to the company’s original mandate. “Air travel is such a vehicle from areas where there’s high transmission to areas of low transmission,” he said.

This is the strictest mandate that Laura Boudreau with Columbia Business School has seen so far. “This will be another kind of potential turning point. And in terms of how far we’ll expect to see other employers go with with their policies,” she said. She said the future of individual airlines could come down to the success of their policies.

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