United Airlines to allow vaccine-exempt employees to return to work

United Airlines will allow employees who requested religious or medical exemptions to its vaccine mandate to return to their regular jobs from unpaid leave or alternate roles, the airline said Thursday.

In making the changes to its vaccine policy, Chicago-based United cited sharply dropping COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations, COVID-19 restrictions lifting in many cities and states, and relaxing mask guidance in non-airport settings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

United will “reevaluate the appropriate safety protocols” if the virus again surges, the carrier said.

United announced in August 2021 it would require all U.S.-based employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or they would be required to leave the company. About 200 employees lost their jobs because they did not get vaccinated or seek an exemption, United said.

Those who requested religious or medical accommodations were largely put on unpaid leave or allowed to apply for roles that don’t involve interacting with customers.

About 2,200 employees have exemptions to the mandate, United said in a memo to employees. They will be allowed to return to their regular positions at the end of March.

United’s exemption practice was subject to a federal lawsuit brought by a handful of employees, who said the carrier’s offer of unpaid leave wasn’t a reasonable accommodation for workers who received exemptions from the mandate.

The case has wound its way through the courts, and in mid-February, a federal appeals court ruled that a lower court judge who had initially denied the employees’ request to block the unpaid leave practice must reconsider.

Thursday, United said in a court filing the appellate court’s ruling should be vacated and employees’ appeal of the lower court’s ruling dismissed as irrelevant because the airline was changing its exemption policy. The employees’ attorney opposed United’s request, the airline said in the filing.

United said in a memo to employees it put in place several rules to protect workers, including the vaccine mandate, and urged employees to get vaccine boosters.

“Of all these efforts, the one that remains the most effective at protecting our employees and customers is our successful employee vaccination policy,” United’s Vice President of Human Resources Kirk Limacher said in the note.

Among the United employees who have died during the COVID-19 pandemic were five with vaccine exemptions, United said.

“All loss of life is tragic, but at United, our vaccinated employees have been significantly less likely to lose their lives to COVID,” the airline said.

Other airlines have taken varying approaches to requiring vaccines for employees. Southwest Airlines said at the end of February no employees had lost jobs over vaccine rules. At American Airlines, unvaccinated employees, including those with religious or medical accommodations, were required to complete weekly health declarations, wear masks and social distance.

Also Thursday, officials extended a federal mask mandate that continues to require travelers to wear masks when flying, riding public transit and in other transportation settings. The federal mandate had been set to expire March 18 and was extended until April 18.