United Airlines will allow 2,200 unvaccinated employees to return to their jobs this month, according to a staff memo sent March 10. The memo noted that the COVID-19 pandemic is “beginning to meaningfully recede.”
Employees who were granted religious or medical exemptions and put on unpaid leave can return to work starting March 28. In a memo, Kirk Limacher, United’s vice president of human resources, cited the decline in case counts and hospitalizations from the Omicron variant and the recently relaxed mask guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Chicago-based carrier, however, stopped short of setting the policy in stone.
“Of course, if another variant emerges or the COVID trends suddenly reverse course, we will reevaluate the appropriate safety protocols at that time,” the memo indicated.
United was the first major U.S. airline to institute a companywide shot mandate in August 2021 for all of its staff, who had to be “fully vaccinated” by September 27, 2021, or face possible termination. Of the company’s 67,000 employees, hundreds were fired or put on leave, while others were placed in non-customer-facing positions.
Last December, United Chief Executive Scott Kirby showed he still believes the company made the right decision in introducing and enforcing the shot mandate. “We did this for safety,” said Kirby, defending the mandate. “We believe it saved lives. We don’t compromise on safety.”
United employees brought a lawsuit against the company for being placed on unpaid leave as part of their religious or medical accommodations.
A U.S. appeals court on Feb. 17 ordered a new review of a decision not to block United from enforcing the mandate. The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 to return the issue to a U.S. district judge who had rejected a request for an injunction blocking the mandate while employees argue their case.
Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, “No one, including United Airlines employees, should be forced to take the COVID shots against their sincerely held religious beliefs or in light of health concerns. In the name of ‘safety,’ United has fired hundreds of staff, placed others on unpaid leave or moved them out of their current jobs, but companies cannot be allowed to force people to take these injections. United’s decision to impose the shot mandate was foolish, shortsighted and abusive.”