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Major U.S. Airline to Put Unvaccinated Employees on Unpaid Leave Starting Next Month

Employees can request a religious exemption from the vaccine, but if denied, they will have five weeks to receive their first dose or be terminated.

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Looks like flying the friendly skies will take on a different meaning for United Airlines employees starting this fall, thanks to revised vaccination policies.

Bloomberg | Getty Images

United revealed to staff this week that employees who had been granted exemption from mandatory staff vaccinations on religious grounds will now be put on temporary unpaid leave beginning in October, per an internal memo to employees obtained by Entrepreneur.

“We are working hard to ensure the safety of our employees and customers while accommodating those employees who have sincerely held religious beliefs. Each submission for accommodation will be reviewed individually and will comply with any applicable collective bargaining agreement,” United said in the letter obtained by Entrepreneur. “We expect to inform you if your submission was approved or denied in the next two weeks.”

The airline cited the rise in COVID-19 cases and pandemic surge as the core reason behind its decision.

“Right now, the seven-day average of daily COVID deaths is the highest since March and is likely to rise into the fall as more people are hospitalized. COVID infections are up 20% with new cases rising in almost every part of the country,” the company said. “There are close to 100,000 people in the hospital, and an average of 1,500 people are dying from COVID every day. All these statistics apply almost exclusively to the unvaccinated. Notably, each of these metrics has worsened since our August 6 vaccine requirement announcement.”

Back in the beginning of August, the airline told employees that they must be vaccinated by October 27 or risk termination.

Related: Major U.S. Airline Becomes First to Require Employees to Be Vaccinated or Risk Termination

“We have no greater responsibility to you and your colleagues than to ensure your safety when you’re at work, and the facts are crystal clear: everyone is safer when everyone is vaccinated,” United CEO Scott Kirby and President Brett Hart said in a letter to employees at the time.

The new policy seems to be abiding by that same mindset. Per CNBC, employees can request a religious exemption from the vaccine, but if denied, they will have five weeks to receive their first dose or they will be terminated. This includes any employee who interacts with customers and the public — namely pilots, flight attendants and customer-service and gate agents.

Related: American Airlines Will Cancel Hundreds of Flights Due to Staffing Shortages

"Once the pandemic meaningfully recedes, you will be welcomed back to the team on active status,” the staff memo said, which given the unpredictable nature of the pandemic could be quite a while.

Though United was the first of any major U.S. airline to enforce any strict vaccination policy for employees, it now joins Delta Airlines and Alaska Airlines, which both plan to end pay protection for any employees who are infected with or exposed to the coronavirus.

“Our highest priority through the pandemic – and the sole reason we instituted a vaccine requirement for every U.S. employee at United Airlines – has been to keep people safe," United told employees. "The good news is that a large majority of our employees have already either uploaded their vaccination records to Flying Together or told their manager they plan to get their shot on or before September 27.”

The airline industry reportedly saw a loss of $370 billion last year due to the pandemic, with the number of total passengers plummeting nearly 60% year over year.

United Airlines's valuation was up nearly 31% year over year as of Thursday morning.

Emily Rella

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Entrepreneur Staff

Emily Rella is a news writer at Entrepreneur.com. Previously, she was an editor at Verizon Media, covering entertainment, pop culture, lifestyle, entrepreneuership and business. She is a 2015 graduate of Boston College and a Ridgefield, CT native.