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Unvaccinated United Airlines Employees To Be Put On Temporary Leave

In a move to further protect workers and customers from COVID-19, United Airlines has told employees who are seeking religious or medical exemptions to the company's vaccine mandate that even if approved, they will be put on temporary leave starting Oct. 2 while the company works to institute safety measures for unvaccinated employees.

Employees granted religious exemptions will be placed on temporary, unpaid personal leave, and those granted medical exemptions will be placed on temporary medical leave, according to an internal memo.

The memo does not specify how long the leave will last. Employees in "operational customer-facing roles," including pilots, flight attendants and customer service agents were told, "Once the pandemic meaningfully recedes, you will be welcomed back to the team on active status."

Those in non-customer-facing roles, including technicians and dispatchers, will be required to undergo weekly testing for COVID-19 and to wear a mask at all times including outdoors, the memo said.

Employees whose requests for exemptions are denied will be terminated if they do not get their first shot by Sept. 27 or are not fully vaccinated within five weeks of the date of their denial notice.

United Airlines imposed a vaccine requirement on U.S.-based employees in early August as cases of the delta variant began to soar, becoming the first U.S. airline to mandate a COVID-19 vaccine. Employees are required to upload a vaccine card showing proof of vaccination by Sept. 27, which will mark five weeks since the FDA's full approval of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

In early August, when United first announced its vaccine mandate, it said about 90% of pilots and 80% of flight attendants were already vaccinated. The company now says more than half of its employees who were unvaccinated on the day of the announcement have since gotten vaccinated.

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Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.