A group of Hawaiian Airlines employees has challenged the company’s Covid-19 vaccine mandate, saying the company violated federal law by failing to accommodate their religious beliefs and medical conditions.

The lawsuit, filed this week in federal district court in Honolulu, asks the court to order Hawaiian to stop terminating or placing on unpaid leave “any employee who has a religious or medical basis for seeking an accommodation and does not wish to be terminated, placed on unpaid leave, or forced into retirement from the company.”

Hawaiian spokesman Alex DaSilva declined to comment on the specifics of the suit. However, Hawaiian issued a statement saying that approximately 270 of the company’s more than 6,000 employees had opted to take unpaid leave or leave the company rather than getting vaccinated by Wednesday’s deadline to do so.

To date, “96% of our 6,600-plus U.S.-based teammates are immunized, and a limited number of employees received reasonable accommodations,” the company said Friday. “We know that our vaccine requirement has been a challenging topic, but we have a responsibility to our fellow teammates, guests, and communities to keep each other safe – and vaccines are the most effective protection against the virus.”

Some 270 Hawaiian Airlines employees have opted to resign or take unpaid leave rather than getting vaccinated, the company said. Ludwig Laab/Civil Beat/2021

The complaint also asks the court to certify the lawsuit as a class action covering any employees who sought religious or medical accommodations so they didn’t have to take the vaccine, which the company requires. Employees who don’t get vaccinated must go on unpaid leave or resign, the company said.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are pilots Robert Anthony Espinosa and Ronald Lum, flight attendants Riki O’Hailpin and Nina Arizumi, aircraft technician Erwin Young, management instructor Puanani Badiang, and customer service agent Sabrina Franks.

Pilot Says Vaccine Defies “The Will Of God”

All seven plaintiffs allege the company violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by, among other things, failing to engage in an interactive process regarding their requests for religious accommodations and by responding “to Plaintiffs with questions designed to deter Plaintiffs from exercising their religious beliefs.”

Additionally, the suit says the airline violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by refusing to offer reasonable medical accommodations to O’Hailpin, Arizumi, and Lum, who assert they have disabilities that prevent them from taking the vaccine.

In statements filed with the lawsuit, the plaintiffs described their views of taking the vaccines in dramatic terms. Lum, for instance, said he has heart disease and takes cholesterol medicine. Accordingly, he said, “If I were to take this vaccine, I would be putting my life on the line.”

Espinosa, who is a pastor at Makakilo Baptist Church, said taking the vaccine would have dire spiritual consequences.

“As a disciple of Christ and an ordained Pastor, I cannot do anything that violates the will of God or goes against His Word,” Espinosa said in his statement. “It would therefore be a violation of my conscience (and God’s direction for my life) to take the vaccine. Taking the vaccine is something that cannot be undone and would be an unrecoverable violation of my faith in the Lord.”

DaSilva declined to discuss the company’s processes for granting or denying exemptions, citing the litigation.

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