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Court Denied Employee’s Request To Prevent Implementation Of Unpaid Leave As Religious Accommodation To Employer’s COVID-19 Vaccine Policy
United Airlines mandated COVID-19 vaccinations for its employees. Jaymee Barrington, who worked for United, claimed that her sincerely held Christian faith prevented her from taking the COVID-19 vaccine and she requested a religious accommodation. United granted her request and placed her on a leave of absence without pay as an accommodation. United also told her she would “be welcomed back to work once COVID-19 testing protocols are in place for [her] location and work area,” but she would be separated from the company if her position was filled while she was out on leave. United gave Barrington five days to respond to the accommodation. Barrington then sought a preliminary injunction preventing United from placing her on unpaid leave.
To receive a preliminary injunction, Barrington was required to show: (1) a substantial likelihood of success on the merits; (2) irreparable harm to her if the injunction is denied; (3) the threatened injury outweighs the harms that the preliminary injunction may cause to United; and (4) the injunction, if issued, will not adversely affect the public interest.
Under Title VII, employers must provide reasonable accommodation for an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs or show that reasonable accommodation would be an undue hardship on the employer. Employers must also engage in an interactive process with employees making requests for reasonable accommodations. That is, they must engage in good faith communications with employees about potential accommodations.
Barrington alleged that United failed to engage in an interactive process with her before determining the available accommodation. Barrington contended that United should have offered her alternative accommodations, such as mask-wearing, periodic testing, social distancing, or moving her to an alternative position. United contended that it offered Barrington a reasonable accommodation in the form of an unpaid leave of absence. United further asserted that the alternative accommodations suggested by Barrington would constitute an undue hardship on the airline, in the form of additional hiring, training, and costs, and Barrington’s presence in the workplace would jeopardize the lives and health of other United employees based on information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Based on the available facts, the court found that United had engaged in an interactive process with Barrington by responding to Barrington’s request for an accommodation, notifying her by email of the proposed accommodation, and giving her five days to respond. Therefore, the court held that Barrington was unlikely to succeed on the merits of her reasonable accommodation or interactive process claims.
Barrington also alleged that United Airlines retaliated against her for making a request for reasonable accommodation by delaying her exemption for approximately three weeks. The court found that Barrington failed to show how this delay amounted to adverse action and held that Barrington was unlikely to succeed on the merits of this claim as well. Therefore, the court denied Barrington’s request for a preliminary injunction.
Barrington v. United Airlines, Inc. (D. Colo., Oct. 14, 2021, No. 21-CV-2602-RMR-STV) 2021 WL 4840855.
Employers have a legal obligation to engage in an interactive process with employees who request an accommodation because they have a religious belief, practice, or observance that conflicts with a workplace policy or requirement, and to determine what reasonable accommodations may exist. California employers that are subject to the Fair Employment and Housing Act have a similar obligation under that law.