United Airlines is being sued by thousands of its own employees after its CEO threatened to fire them for pursuing religious exemptions to the company's vaccine mandate.
The federal government handed out $74 billion to help airlines stay afloat during the pandemic. That means Congress can comb through how they use that money as well as a record number of complaints, and United is now in the crosshairs of some lawmakers.
"Any pilot, or any employee that all of the sudden decides, 'I'm really religious,' you're putting your job on the line," said Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines. "You better be very careful about that."
Kirby's approach has led more than 2,000 United workers to join a class-action lawsuit against their employer. They endured unpaid leave after applying for a religious or medical exemption to the company's sweeping vaccine mandate.
The group called Airline Employees for Health Freedom (AE4HF) claims the airline violated their statutory rights. United fired at least 200 workers and left another 2,000 unpaid for more than a month.
"We are standing for our religious freedom and our medical autonomy, and we believe we are entitled to the protections under Title VII," said Sherry Walker, a co-founder of AE4HF and captain for United Airlines.
Their plight also caught the attention of the Senate Oversight Committee. Lawmakers questioned major airlines for their handling of more than $70 million in Cares Act money that was used to dig out big airlines from the pandemic fallout. United's business practices pertaining to the vaccine mandate drew the biggest sparks from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).
"This morning I spoke with a 10-year flight attendant for United," Cruz said. "She is a Hispanic single mom from Texas who you fired. She received her termination notice tied to the trash can through her front gate."
On top of unpaid leave or termination, Walker says the company is prohibiting them from seeking outside employment and refusing them access to their savings and 401K. The group's case now rests with the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. If the workers win on merit and receive a preliminary injunction, United would have to restore their employment or give them paid leave.
"United has demonstrated a quote, 'calloused approach to and apparent disdain for people of faith'," said Cruz, quoting 5th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge James Ho.
This isn't the only sign of unfriendly skies. Last year, the Transportation Department received nearly 90,000 complaints about ticket refunds – a 5,000% jump in one year. Lawmakers hope to protect future flyers with a universal bill of rights.