United Airlines will place unvaccinated employees granted religious or medical waivers on leave

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United Airlines told employees Wednesday that anyone granted a religious or medical waiver from an accelerated Sept. 27 vaccination deadline will be placed on temporary leave beginning Oct. 2.

Employees whose requests for a vaccination exemption are denied will have five weeks to get the shots or be terminated by the airline.

That was the message emailed to an undisclosed number of United employees who submitted a request for a “reasonable accommodation” exempting them from the vaccine requirement, based on “sincerely held” religious beliefs or a medical condition.

Chicago-based United Airlines told its 67,000 U.S. employees last month they would have until Oct. 25 to provide proof they received all required doses of the Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but the timetable was sped up by the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine Aug. 23.

The terms of the personal leave for employees granted a vaccine waiver vary based on whether the position is customer-facing, and if the exemption is for religious or medical reasons. Employees will be notified if their application is approved or denied within two weeks.

“In determining the appropriate accommodations, we will take many factors into account including an employee’s work requirements and the metrics that illustrate the state of the pandemic in the U.S.,” the airline said in its Wednesday memo.

For customer-facing roles such as pilots, flight attendants and gate agents, employees granted a religious vaccine exemption will be placed on unpaid personal leave beginning Oct. 2, and would be able to return to work only after the pandemic “meaningfully recedes,” the airline said.

Mechanics, ramp service employees and other operational positions exempted from vaccinations for religious reasons would remain on unpaid leave until United “develops and implements” new testing and safety procedures to allow their return, the airline said.

Employees at United’s Chicago-based headquarters are currently on a hybrid schedule that includes both remote work and time in the office. Management and administrative employees granted a religious exemption would also be placed on temporary unpaid leave until the airline determines applicable safety protocols, and whether the position requires that they come into the office.

Those granted medical exemptions to the vaccine requirements will face the same return-to-work timetable, but will be placed on medical leave, which can include some form of compensation.

While United Airlines declined to disclose what percentage of employees have been vaccinated, more than half of the employees who had not shown proof of vaccination as of the Aug. 6 announcement have since submitted it, the airline said.

United is among a growing number of major companies implementing vaccine mandates for employees as COVID-19 cases rise amid the spread of the delta variant. Other companies requiring proof of vaccination include CVS, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Delta Air Lines, Tyson Foods and Deerfield-based Walgreens.

rchannick@chicagotribune.com

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