Some unvaccinated Hawaiian Air workers allowed to return while others told they can reapply

Hawaiian Airlines welcomes back unvaccinated employees under new COVID policy, but some have to start from the bottom
Published: Sep. 30, 2022 at 5:38 PM HST|Updated: Oct. 1, 2022 at 12:11 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Starting this Saturday, Hawaiian Airlines will no longer require its more than 7,000 employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

And the carrier is welcoming back unvaccinated employees who chose to take a leave of absence.

However, the new policy doesn’t benefit everyone.

During the pandemic, Hawaiian let unvaccinated employees go on unpaid leave if they promised to get the shot by January 2023. Those employees are being allowed back without penalty.

But about 100 workers who refused to make that promise were fired.

Hawaiian Airlines said they can come back, too. But they have to reapply without credit for their seniority.

Those who lost their jobs to the vaccine policy are suing the company, claiming the terms of their termination and offer to return are unfair and not legal.

Among those fired in January is Carol Lamse, a flight attendant of 50 years.

Lamse said she wants to go back to work but having to start at the bottom with new hires is not an option and disrespects her decades of service.

“It’s hurtful. It’s unnecessary. I don’t know why they’re doing it that way. It’s not the company I remember,” Lamse said. “There was a sense of ohana, there was a sense of working together to make it work.”

Because she donated one of her kidneys to a co-worker — she said that she was immunocompromised, but the airline denied her requests for medical and religious exemptions.

Thirty-three-year veteran Dwayne Tuzon was also denied.

“Out of the 10 people that got an approved accommodation, none of the 10 people were union workers,” Tuzon said. “After 33 years, I have to go at the bottom of the totem pole. I prefer not doing that.”

Many fired employees filed claims with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Some filed a class action lawsuit against Hawaiian Airlines to stop termination.

Now with the new policy, their attorney is refiling the complaint, claiming they were not given adequate justification for denying their exemptions.

“The case is not about the COVID shot, the case is about federal law, the employment law and the Americans with Disabilities Act law,” said Jim Hochberg, the attorney representing the group.

“Hawaiian Airlines utterly failed its legal obligation under congressional statutes to treat their employees’ request to be exempt from the COVID vaccination as a term of employment.”

Wilfredo Tungol is a former attorney with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He said under federal law, when an employer denies an exemption it must show due diligence.

“The employer has better have justification of a some kind of documentation to show that they had gone through each employee’s claim to determine whether or not there really was a good reason to deny,” he said.

Some hold onto hope Hawaiian Air will welcome back former ohana, now that the mandate is gone.

“That heart lives in the people that are there, so I just want that heart to bring everyone back. That’s what I want,” said Leilani Soon, who was also fired from her job as a flight attendant after seven years.

“These people mean so much to me, but I can’t go against what I feel like, you know, what God’s told me to do. So, I think I stand up for that,” Soon said.

“What we did choose to do is to lose income, lose our livelihood. And, and we were strong, we held strong to that belief, and now we’re facing the consequences of making that decision,” Tuzon said.

“And we’re hoping, once again, that they would turn around and not only call back [those on leave] but also the terminated.”

In a statement, the airline is sticking to the policy of denying seniority to fired employees and takes very seriously the religious beliefs and medical concerns of employees who declined to be vaccinated.

The carrier said they “worked hard to make the appropriate rules and decisions, consistent with its legal obligations and medical guidance,” to prioritize the safety of all.