01/28/2022 / By Mary Villareal
Sherry Walker, a United Airlines pilot who refuse to get vaccinated against the Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) for religious reasons, said that she is now on forced unpaid leave with no way to seek another job due to the company’s strict non-compete clause.
Walker noted that she refused to be complicit in the use of fetal tissue, which was used in the research and development of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and in the deployment of Johnson & Johnson.
Speaking during a protest against vaccine mandates in Washington D.C., Walker said, “I am out on unpaid leave. I am prohibited from getting another job. I’m prohibited from accessing my 401(k). I have no medical benefits, and I’m leading the charge in this fight, so my days are consumed.”
United Airlines was among the first U.S. companies that required COVID-19 vaccinations for all its employees. They have rolled out their policies since early August 2021 for its 67,000 U.S.-based employees. According to the airline, around 2,000 employees were granted medical or religious accommodations during the vaccine rollout, and those with exemptions had the option of continuing to work in a non-customer-facing role. (Related: United Airlines to fire nearly 600 workers for refusing to get COVID-19 jabs.)
However, this does not fare well for Walker, who is an international wide-body captain. “They wanted to offer me a job throwing bags for $12 an hour,” she said, adding that the pilots who applied for internal reassignment had also been rejected due to their vaccination status.
The company noted that only workers who refused their reassignment were placed on unpaid leave.
In a statement, United Airlines said that they believe the best way to keep everyone as safe as possible is to have employees vaccinated, and nearly all United employees have chosen to do so. “We have identified non-customer-facing roles where accommodated employees can apply and continue working until it is safe for them to return to their current positions.”
Walker said, however, that she has been prohibited from finding outside work due to the non-compete contracts, and they have been told that they can’t be employed outside. Employees must go through ethics and compliance and employees can’t go to companies that they could have a non-compete with.
Walker also said that she is still considered an “active employee” after being put on unpaid leave, which means that she can get called back with two weeks’ notice at any given time. But her active status means that she isn’t qualified for a lifestyle change, and she can’t access her 401(k) account, either. United employees on unpaid leave can’t make early withdrawals from their retirement accounts and can’t take loans against their savings either, because they have no verifiable income. (Related: United Airlines CEO wants to force his employees to get the coronavirus vaccine.)
“It’s so retaliatory in all directions,” Walker said. “Every step of the way, it’s been coercive to try to force us to get that shot in the arm.”
Schwab Retirement Plan Services, which handles Walker’s retirement, said that the company was unaware of any plan participants who are unable to access their benefits. The company administers “workplace retirement plans at the direction and discretion of the employers who select us, and according to the rules of each retirement plan,” a spokesman for the company said.
Employees of United Airlines already previously alleged that the company’s COVID-19 vaccination policy failed to accommodate exempt employees and retaliated, seeking exemptions.
According to the suit filed by the company’s employees in August, United granted only 80% of requests for religious exemptions and 63% of requests for medical exemptions from its mandate. The company also only offered exempted employees indefinite unpaid leave as an accommodation.
Workers said that the use of indefinite unpaid leave has created “irreparable harm” on the basis that the company is placing them in an “impossible position” by preventing them from accruing seniority and causing them to face “serious and irreparable injuries resulting from the loss of salary.”
The judge, however, ruled that the plaintiffs did not sufficiently show that they would likely suffer imminent, irreparable injury absent an injunction, and denied the employees’ motion.
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