As private businesses mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for their employees under pressure from the Biden administration, employees are banding together to make their displeasure known.
In the airline industry, United Airlines pilot Sherry Walker and her group, Airline Employees 4 Health Freedom, are pushing back against what they view as an overreach by the industry to control their health and violate their religious freedom.
“I cannot wake up some day in 10 years and my kid turns to me and says, ‘Mom, you had a chance to fix this and you didn’t and you left me this mess,'” Walker says. “So I’m going to fight till the end for my religious faith and that of my coworkers. And if that means that I’m done flying, I guess I have a bigger fight God put in front of me.”
Walker joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to talk about her efforts to push back against vaccine mandates in the airline industry.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.
Doug Blair: My guest today is Sherry Walker, a pilot for United Airlines and co-founder of Airline Employees 4 Health Freedom, an organization formed to counter COVID-19 vaccination mandates in the airline industry. Sherry, welcome to the show.
Sherry Walker: Thank you for having me today.
Blair: Of course, it’s a pleasure. Let’s start with the lawsuit that your group filed against United to fight back against this mandate. Can you tell us a little bit more about that lawsuit and what you’re hoping to achieve from it?
Walker: Sure. When our CEO on Aug. 6 announced the mandate, it pretty much ripped through the company to a point where everyone went into panic because it was strictly a marketing ploy, we believe couched in fear. So [we] banded together about 2,000 of us and hired Cher Joffe, a constitutional and faith-based defender of our freedoms, and they had filed mid-September a complaint in the northern district in Texas.
We have six named litigants and we were successful in a couple of TROs [temporary restraining orders]; we went for the preliminary injunction and as much as [District Court] Judge Mark Pittman wanted to give us that, at the time, the definitions of “irreparable harm” were long-standing. And although we believe that Love v. City of Dallas sets us up beautifully, Judge Pittman had some reservation. So he told us, he invited us in our ruling, to go ask his bosses at the 5th [Circuit].
So we filed an emergency motion for an injunction while we’re in appeal and that was turned down. But they did grant us expedited status and they have since put us on the schedule for Jan. 3, although I’m not sure that that date will hold. That expedited merits-based claim will then be heard.
The beauty of what happened when we got the denial on the emergency injunction was the accompanying opinion of [5th Circuit] Judge [James] Ho. And if we take a look at Judge Ho’s writing, it’s very strong language and it backs up what the court produced in [another] case a couple weeks ago. And it actually made the jump from a public entity like OSHA [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] to the private entity of United Airlines. So we’re very thankful for Judge Ho’s opinion.
Blair: Now United Airlines was one of the first airlines to mandate vaccinations for its employees. As somebody who has been flying with United, how did you feel when you’d been told that you needed to get vaccinated or you would lose your job?
Walker: Well, actually, we felt pretty betrayed. Interestingly enough, I didn’t hear it from my boss. I heard it on CNBC that morning. So the press was more important, I think, than [United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby’s] own employees.
Walker: Yeah, it was pretty sad. But then later on, within another week or two—and the tapes are up on our YouTube channel, AE4HF.org, and we have some links to the video—but in a flight operations meeting, he basically said anyone who wants to exercise their religious liberties, they can go look for another job because he refuses to honor that. So we’re pretty sure, and Judge Pittman wrote in his opinion, that it was pretextual safety claims that really are nothing more than a marketing campaign to be the first fully vaccinated [airline].
Blair: That is something I wanted to follow up on. On your website, you say marketing was the main driver for this mandate and you write: “Why else would the CEO ground almost 400 of [United’s] most experienced pilots, impose draconian retaliatory policies on 2,000 of its most loyal employees, and attempt to pit vaccinated coworkers against unvaccinated?” So, I mean, what about this is about marketing?
Walker: Well, within a day or so, as I’m also a frequent flyer at United and do purchase tickets on our airline, I received an email from the frequent flyer department explaining how the holiday season is going to be the best ever, that I would be flying on a 100% vaccinated airline and I should take comfort in that. So we believe, [and] basically what was heard in the trial as well by the judge, is that while [Kirby] claims safety, that this is really a marketing point.
And I say that because if it were really about safety and Mr. Kirby is not necessarily talking about the safety of the flying public, he’s talking about the safety of his own employees. Like he knows more about my health than I do, but he’s worried about my safety. If it were really about that, then he would not let pilots from other airlines who do not have vaccine mandates ride in my cockpit jump seat. He would be worried about all the employees worldwide, like the London-based flight attendants, who do not have to have this mandate. So we don’t understand where he’s saying it’s for our own good, basically.
Blair: You mentioned that there were no religious exemptions granted by United. Is that something that’s still the case? There’s no moral or religious exemption that you can apply to get out of getting vaccinated with United?
Walker: No, we were allowed to apply for that. It was just a very onerous process. And in fact, I would argue that it was all a stacked deck to ensure that you didn’t get to exercise your rights. So in violation of Title VII, they immediately said you had to have a letter from your pastor. Well, that is not true. So they backed off on that.
And then they added other onerous requests. They started with [saying that] once you send in your request, you would get a list of seven questions back based on your faith. One of the questions was, “Have you ever taken an aspirin?” … But eventually the onerous questions were dropped and it went down to citing a third-party letter that could attest to your faith. Of course, a lot of people thought that meant their pastor, and they fell out of the process because of the mere three-day window.
So everything was pretty much stacked against us. … You had to have your request for honoring your faith in by Aug. 31. And I argued all along, what happens to the person who finds God on Sept. 1, they no longer have Title VII rights at United Airlines? So the process was a stacked deck to ensure that as few people as possible received [religion-based] accommodations.
Blair: It sounds like from what you’re saying, there was this idea that they were enforcing the letter of the law, where they were allowing the exemptions to be filed. But they were trying to make it as difficult as possible to actually get an exemption?
Walker: Yes, sir. And then the very few who did get exemptions now are facing what United considers–and this was the basis for our lawsuit–what is a reasonable accommodation. In their mind it is indefinite unpaid leave. OK. That to us is irreparable harm. It wouldn’t be so bad if we could all get jobs, but just to ensure that the pain is final they’ve said, “Well, we’re going to keep you as active status employees.”
Well, what does that mean? It means that I now cannot go seek employment in any [other] aviation industry without approval of the airline, and they’re not granting it for conflict of interest reasons.
They’re saying, “Because you’re an active employee … you don’t have a qualified lifestyle change so you cannot have an emergency access to your 401(k).” So we have people with hundreds of thousands of dollars in retirement funds saved up that will probably have to declare bankruptcy.
In addition as an inactive employee, you’re on unpaid leave, you can’t seek unemployment benefits. And we’ve had some people who’ve tried to refinance their house in a cash-out and the refinance companies are saying, “Well, no, you’re are on leave so you have no income, so we can’t give you a refi.” So they’re not content on just putting us out of work. They want to destroy us. And we believe it’s because of our faith.
Blair: Faced with these obviously horrible circumstances, how has United tried to save face or responded to these stories? I can’t imagine a company would want to keep this type of bad press going. So what is their justification for this?
Walker: They don’t have any, they have just tried to ignore us, erase us. Most of our coworkers do not even know we exist. We’re fighting hard to get our message out, but this multinational global [corporation] just thinks that they can run roughshod over its employees, and we’re not going to stand for it anymore. So we’re standing up.
Blair: You mentioned that some of your coworkers don’t know about you guys. Have you found that that’s true? How have coworkers that have heard about your organization responded to the organization?
Walker: A lot of people, unfortunately, I would say drink the Kool-Aid. We’ve had a lot of folks in our organization who have been discriminated against on social media, they’ve been retaliated against, stalked, whatever you want to call it in the social media world. But our CEO comes out and says a couple weeks back that it doesn’t matter. “Nobody wants to fly with those people who are unvaccinated anyway.”
When that hit the press within hours, we had hundreds of letters from coworkers who said, “We don’t care. We’ll fly with you. We know the vaccine protects us so we’re all right. And we didn’t even know you existed out here.” So, we’ve been able to do some fundraising and get some word out from all the folks that are sympathetic. But there is a large contingency that are just vile to some of our members.
Blair: One of the things that really struck me as I was reading your website is that there is this idea of people who were scared to lose jobs … or losing their retirement benefits or all of these pensions that they’d worked for. They were scared of losing these things, that they went against their religious beliefs or their moral beliefs, and they received the vaccine. Have you found that there are a lot of people coming to you with that story and saying, “I don’t know what to do. I went against my religious faith. I went against my moral beliefs. How do I deal with this?”
Walker: I would start first [by saying] again, the deck was stacked. So the pressure was put on everyone from the union members to management to get these people vaccinated. And I’ve had numerous phone calls with people in tears saying, “I violated my faith. I don’t know what to do.” I even had one person most recently that they were looking at suicide; and it’s out there, and we’re doing everything we can to get people the help.
It is really unbelievable, the lack of human empathy, in an interactive process, whereby you’re supposed to be able to say, “Well, OK, I’ll get you the letter, but I’m on a three-day trip right now. I can’t get home and get it.” Too bad. They canceled your request. So we’re just not sure what to do with that. But right now, we’re helping everybody. We’re 2,000 strong warriors who are leaning on each other and our faith.
Blair: What is Airline Employees 4 Health Freedom doing? What are some of the things that we can point to as action taken by the organization to help employees who are dealing with the aftermath of these mandates?
Walker: Interestingly enough, our mission kind of changes by the day; every time United throws a wrench at us, we react. I have an incredible group about 20 core volunteers. We have one person who, at the beginning, helped folks with questions regarding writing their religious exemptions.
And we moved on toward the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] complaint. I have an entire department now that specializes in helping people file their EEOC complaints if they have questions in the interview process, and then we track all their filings. We have now a department for terminations. So anytime someone is called in for a termination hearing, a lot of terminations [are] on technicalities. They don’t want the majority of us out on unpaid leave, they’d rather just get us off the payroll or off the list. So there’s been a lot of that. My terminations department, she’s got some really broad shoulders; she listens to all the terrible stories.
Then of course, there’s those of us that are working with the lawsuit and the case. So everybody is a volunteer. Everybody’s stepped up into a role that fits them best. And tomorrow, if they throw something at us, we’ll find a volunteer that’ll help specialize in that. And right now we’re working with people through the holidays. Depression is hitting. Families are struggling. So as a need arises, we support the 2,000 people in the lawsuit.
Blair: We were talking before the show, and it sounds like you have some pretty strong allies in Congress. Could you tell us what’s happening on that end?
Walker: Sure. The Commerce Committee has a meeting in the Senate. We looked at the ranking members and the folks that were friendly to our cause and tried to help present our people’s case. One of our Texas constituents had reached out to Sen. [Ted] Cruz’s office and he was kind enough to listen to her story.
The CEOs of three of the major airlines, I believe one minor, and the head of the flight attendant union will be in Congress answering for–I believe the discussion is regarding the shortages of employees in the airline industry as we approach the holiday season. After receiving, in the case of United Airlines, $7.5 billion in taxpayer money in the form of CARES Act relief.
Well, Mr. Kirby, if you’re short employees, I know where there are 2,000 ready to go to work tomorrow. So one of our constituents who was terminated, was able to tell her story to Sen. Cruz. And we’ve got strong allies in Sen. [Ron] Johnson’s office, Sen. [Mike] Lee’s office, Sen. [Marsha] Blackburn’s office. Sorry if I missed some.
Blair: As the holiday season starts to ramp up, as people want to go home to see their families, do you see that airlines are going to keep pushing on these mandates? Or do you think they’re going to realize we need pilots? We need people in the planes? Let’s pull these back a little bit.
Walker: Interestingly enough, I guess it depends on the airline. … Eventually the [6th Circuit] upheld the stay on the OSHA mandates and then last week, the Senate voted and the Biden mandates all fell, Spirit Airlines came out first and just said, “We’re giving up. This is dumb. We’re not going to mandate this.” All along, American and Southwest [airlines] have said, “We’ll give reasonable accommodations and don’t worry, folks. You’re not going to be out of work.” Delta, a leader in this area, has offered reasonable accommodations via testing.
So the only airline really forcing the issue is Scott Kirby and United Airlines. So I would suggest that everybody else has taken a very reasonable approach based on the fact that the pandemic is starting to wan and the holidays are coming and we need people moved where they need to move.
Now, I will also say that United Airlines has bragged from Day One, and I absolutely agree with it because I worked through the pandemic, [that] we were safe. We are safe. There’s 0.3% chance of catching COVID on an airplane. So we can do it safely. And other airlines have proven that they can keep their people working.
Blair: What do you see as the stakes here if these mandates are allowed to continue? If United continues pushing on with these vaccine mandates for its pilots, do you see this causing industrywide changes? Or do you see this as maybe being more isolated to United?
Walker: I think it’s a gamble on Scott Kirby’s part to see what he can get through. I really don’t know what it’ll do to the industry right now. I mean, if the stay falls on the OSHA mandates or the [president’s]14042 executive order, obviously there are industries that are prepared. I know of friends over in the rail industry at Amtrak, they were told yesterday that their mandate had fallen but be ready because if 14042 gets reinstated immediately, they’ll be required to comply. So these are temporary, perhaps, stays.
More long term, I do this, people ask me every day: “Sherry, you work 20 hours a day on this issue. What is the driving force?” And I will tell you, I have a 16-year-old, my other co-founders have young children. I cannot wake up someday in 10 years and my kid turn to me and say, “Mom, you had a chance to fix this and you didn’t and you left me this mess.”
So, I harken back to our Founding Fathers and the reason they came here. They came here for their religious liberty and it is the last bastion, or the last front, in the Title VII fight. So I’m going to fight till the end for my religious faith and that of my coworkers. And if that means that I’m done flying, I guess I have a bigger fight God put in front of me.
Blair: What advice do you have for those of us who might be dealing with these types of mandates in our jobs?
Walker: First, I would learn Title VII inside out. Know what your rights are. The second piece of advice would be to follow what your company asks. You have the higher hand in court if you do what they ask. If they say, “Fill it out in this type of portal.” If they say, “Write it on a piece of parchment paper.”
Whatever they ask, do what they ask and keep the process interactive. “I submitted it. Where do I stand?” That way, you’re building your own case so that you can prove that whether they were interactive or they didn’t follow it to the T, asked you for something outside of the law. Such as … one thing they suggested is you had to be a member of an organized religion who disavowed vaccines. Well, that’s not in the title.
So I would say follow the steps, know the law. Follow the steps as best you can and build your case. And then there are good people, there are organizations like ours, that are fighting these mandates out there that will help you.
Blair: Where can our listeners learn more about your organization?
Walker: We are at Airline Employees 4 Health Freedom. So the initials AE4HF.org. We are a 501(c)(4) [nonprofit]. We could use all the help we can to get this case over the line. … If nothing else, visit the site and watch the stories. See the stories of the faceless people of United Airlines who’ve had their faith trampled by this ridiculous mandate. And maybe this Christmas season you’ll understand why this is so important to us.
Blair: Excellent. That was Sherry Walker, a pilot for United Airlines and co-founder of Airline Employees for Health Freedom, an organization formed to counter COVID-19 vaccination mandates in the airline industry. Sherry, thank you so much for your time.
Walker: Thank you.
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