Over the summer, many companies began to transition back to in-person work after 18 months of Zoom meetings from home. New precautions were put in place in many workplaces to help keep employees safe, including mandatory vaccinations in some cases. From employees of Google to teachers in Washington state, many people were required to get vaccinated in order to work alongside other staff. And that will only become more prevalent now that President Joe Biden announced a rule on Sept. 9 that companies with more than 100 employees must require vaccinations or weekly tests for their workers. But for those who choose to remain unvaccinated, a test may not be a viable option in all cases. Recently, the consequences have started to build for unvaccinated people, and a few major companies are now forcing them out without pay.
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Prior to Biden’s announcement, United Airlines decided that unvaccinated employees, even those who were granted exemptions for religious or medical reasons, could be put on indefinite unpaid leave starting Oct. 2, as reported by the Associated Press (AP).
United had previously announced in August that they were requiring their entire 67,000-person U.S. workforce to get vaccinated against COVID by Sept. 27, with exemptions allowed for both religious and medical reasons. Then, in a Sept. 8 memo from Kirk Limacher, vice president of HR, United said that those who have been denied medical or religious exemptions will have five more weeks to get vaccinated or face termination or unpaid leave. But it was also revealed that even those granted exemptions could face the same consequences.
The AP reports that unvaccinated workers who were granted exemptions and who often come into contact with passengers—like flight attendants, gate agents, and pilots—will now have to take unpaid leave. And they won’t be allowed back on the job until the pandemic “meaningfully recedes,” as stated in the memo. Exempt employees who rarely deal with passengers, like baggage handlers and mechanics, will also be put on unpaid leave until the airline can institute new plans for weekly testing and mask mandates.
“While we expect to provide an update regarding the timing for return from temporary, unpaid personal leave by mid-October, your official return to work date might be significantly later,” United says in the memo, which was published by The Points Guy.
The memo cites the current COVID surge as the reason behind the decision. New infections are at their highest level nationwide since March and are “likely to rise into the fall,” particularly among those who are unvaccinated, United says. “Given the dire statistics listed above, we can no longer allow unvaccinated people back into the workplace until we better understand how they might interact with our customers and their vaccinated co-workers,” the memo reads.
While Biden did not discuss exemptions in regards to the new federal rule, White House press secretary Jen Psaki previously said at a press conference on Sept. 9, “There will be limited exemptions for legally recognized reasons, such as disability or religious objections.”
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United isn’t the only company forcing unvaccinated employees to give up their paychecks and go on unpaid leave. Canada’s WestJet Airlines also says unvaccinated employees may face unpaid leave or termination as a result of not getting the COVID vaccine by the end of October, Reuters reports.
Outside of airlines, nearly 120 nurses from PeaceHealth Riverbend Hospital and University District in Eugene, Oregon, were put on unpaid leave for refusing to get vaccinated, including those granted exemptions, according to local CBS affiliate KCBY. Alvarez & Marsal, a consulting firm based in New York, is also placing unvaccinated employees on unpaid leave beginning Oct. 31 for up to six months.
It’s unclear if any of these companies will change their policies since Biden’s announcement, but legally, they are within their right to take such action, according to experts. “Employers may require all employees to be vaccinated, but with important limitations,” says Alison R. Kalinski, an associate in the Los Angeles office of Liebert Cassidy Whitmore, who cites disabilities, medical reasons, or deeply held religious beliefs as potential exemptions.
In these cases, Kalinski says, “the employer should engage in the interactive process to determine how the employee can be reasonably accommodated to minimize the employee’s risk of exposure—and spread—of COVID-19 in the workplace.” She adds that some accommodations that employers should consider are “remote work, additional personal protective equipment, moving the employee’s workspace to be more isolated, and unpaid leave.”
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