Court rules United Airlines can put workers with vax exemptions on unpaid leave

Philip Pilosian /

A federal court judge has denied the request of United Airlines’ employees to block the airline’s mandate to put employees with a COVID-19 vaccine exemption on unpaid leave.

US District Judge Mark Pittman expressed sympathy for the employees in his ruling on November 8, 2021 and called United’s handling of their vaccine concerns “calloused.” 

Pittman said, however, that, “The Court appreciates the difficulty conscientious employees face when asserting their religious rights. But that difficulty does not demonstrate irreparable harm.”

“The Court’s analysis must be guided by the law, not by its sympathy,” Pittman said, while responding to the employees’ concerns about a potential loss of income for refusing to comply. “Despite the novel facts presented here, the case law is clear that hardships stemming from loss of income are remediable; axiomatically such hardships cannot be called irreparable.”

United Airlines told local media that it will work to identify roles for the affected employees that don’t put them in close contact with customers. They can apply for and work in those roles until they can safely return to their regular jobs. Employees who choose not to take such a role will be put on leave.

United said that it will review COVID-19 transmission and case rates every 30 days to determine when it is safe to allow unvaccinated employees to resume their original roles.

A brief timeline of events surrounding the Sambrano v. United Airlines Inc., 21-cv-01074 case

On August 6, 2021, United Airlines mandated that all its domestic employees receive a COVID-19 vaccination, unless they are exempt due to medical or religious reasons. 

On September 8, 2021, the airline issued a memo to employees saying that those who have been granted religious and medical exemptions from getting a COVID-19 vaccine will be put on unpaid leave.  

In late September 2021, a group of United Airlines employees, which includes two pilots, a flight attendant and an aircraft technician, filed a federal lawsuit over the mandate, arguing that unpaid leave is an adverse employment action.

In early October 2021, US District Judge Mark Pittman ruled against United Airlines, temporarily halting its plan to put unvaccinated employees who request a medical or religious exemption on unpaid leave, until October 26, 2021. 

On October 25, 2021, Pittman extended this temporary restraining order (TRO) until November 8, 2021. This means that all employees who requested medical or religious exemption will remain on the company’s payroll. 

On November 8, 2021, the Court concluded that the Plaintiffs have not clearly carried their burden to show they would likely suffer imminent, irreparable injury absent an injunction. The court has allowed United Airlines to carry on its unpaid leave scheme for workers with medical and religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccine. 


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