United Airlines firing nearly 600 employees who refused to get vaccinated

United Airlines announced it is firing almost 600 employees who didn’t follow its COVID-19 vaccine mandate deadline, and Tampa lawyers explained what the move spells for other companies and workers facing the choice to get vaccinated.

United was the first major airline company to announce it would require vaccines for employees, and the company is sticking to its mandate after Monday’s deadline. 

"I think employers are saying that we have an obligation to protect the health and welfare of our employees, and we're going to use what we consider to be reasonable standards," said Dr. Jay Wolfson, associate vice president for health law, policy and safety at the University of South Florida. "And the reasonable standards are 97% of the people who are getting sick are unvaccinated. 99% of the people who are dying so far are not vaccinated."

Wolfson said United’s move lines up with the Biden administration’s push for large companies to mandate vaccines. United said 99% of its U.S.-based workforce is vaccinated, and some workers got medical or religious exemptions as Tampa attorney Robert Shimberg explained.

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"They would give people unpaid time off while they determine what was the best way to try to accommodate the employees that fit those categories to determine if it was an undue hardship for the company or not," said Shimberg, of Hill Ward Henderson law firm.

Potential fallout includes having to fill jobs of those fired for refusing the shot, and that translates across industries.

"We're already seeing that in health care. It's having a significant effect because hospitals in New York State, New York City, are already finding that dozens, if not hundreds of employees are choosing not to get vaccinated. So the governor is saying we're going to bring in the National Guard if we have to. We're going to recruit people from out of state," said Wolfson.

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AT&T announced Wednesday its workers in the Communications Workers of America union will be required to be fully vaccinated by Feb. 1, "unless they get an approved job accommodation." 

Legal consequences of vaccine mandates will now play out in court since a few United workers are suing over the mandate.

"We all have a right to sue for things, but this is an issue of balancing interests. And even if I agree that I should have a right to say I don't want to get vaccinated if my employer says as a condition of employment and there is reasonable scientific and medical evidence to support their decision, that would be upheld in a court," said Wolfson.

Wolfson added that some places are allowing weekly testing for those who don’t want the shot, but that gets expensive for the company. 

Some legal challenges have already ruled in favor of the employer’s vaccine mandate like the case involving a Methodist hospital in Houston, Texas.