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Valley United Airlines pilot placed on leave after being granted religious exemption from COVID-19 vaccine mandate

Dave Morgan has worked with United Airlines for 23 years, but he says he's home right now on unpaid leave.

While the slightly washed-out photo of a young-faced Dave Morgan sitting in a 727 is a clue, he’s worked for United Airlines for a long time.

“That was when I was a new hire,” Morgan said of the photo.

His 23 years of experience are palpable in the way he talks about his job.

“I was hired in 1998,” Morgan said.

Now, Morgan is a first officer for United Airlines and flies the Boeing 787.

Morgan has flown around the world with destinations like Shanghai, Tokyo, and Melbourne.

It's evident that he loves meeting people along the way. From flying Tokyo 2020 Olympians home or letting kids come to take a seat in the cockpit, every journey is unique. 

Still, his years of experience make it easy to tell he has no problem setting down a Dreamliner in a storm.

“I can do that,” Morgan said. “I want to do that.”

His wife Amy of 23 years knows it too.

“And he’s good at that,” She said.

But right now, he’s home in Cave Creek and doesn’t want to be.

The change is due to the United Airlines requirement for its employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Morgan, a husband and father of three, filed for and was approved an exemption by the airline.

“I cannot compromise on my deeply held religious beliefs,” Morgan said.

He said the accommodation United gave him started Friday.

“Unpaid leave. One step from total separation. I cannot retire, I cannot collect unemployment. I have to find insurance to cover for my family,” Morgan said.

Morgan is one of about 2,000 United Airlines employees that have been granted either a religious or medical accommodation.

In a statement to 12 News, United Airlines said:

We know that the best way to keep everyone as safe as we can is for everyone to get vaccinated, as nearly all United employees have chosen to do. We are working to identify non-customer facing roles where accommodated employees can apply and continue working until it is safe for them to their return to their current positions.” 

Employment Attorney Joshua Black said unpaid leave can be used as an accommodation.

“As long as they are making sure that they're putting policies in place to return that employee, and as long as there's a real business reason, and that’s really what the laws require,” Black said.

Black added that a business can’t discriminate based on religion on who receives the unpaid leave as an accommodation, he said that would be illegal.

“Accommodation doesn't always mean that your life is going to continue exactly as it was before,” Black said. “None of our lives are the same as they were pre-COVID.”

But Morgan said he and his group, Airline Employees 4 Health Freedom (AE4HF) are challenging it in court.

“Especially when I look around at other airlines being accommodated and we’re not,” Morgan said.

United is reviewing community transmission and national case rates every 30 days to help decide when unvaccinated employees with exemptions can go back to work.

“Let me fly! I love to fly, I’m an airline pilot. This is what I do. We worked through the pandemic, we can find ways to continue to do this,” Morgan said.

COVID-19 Vaccine

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