Southwest walks back its vaccine mandate in a big way

Southwest Airlines has walked back its plan to force unvaccinated employees who have applied for but haven’t received a religious or medical exemption to go on unpaid leave after the federally mandated Dec. 8 deadline.

Both Southwest Airlines and American Airlines are federal contractors and therefore are subject to President Biden’s mandate that employees receive the COVID vaccine by Dec. 8 unless they are exempt due to religious or medical reasons. The rules that apply to federal contractors are stricter than companies with over 100 employees. Workers have no choice but to get the jab or get fired.

Following alleged sickouts and protests, executives have tried to reassure employees of the airline that their jobs are secure even if they are not vaccinated. They are pushing them to get exemptions if they need to. Pilots labor unions have fought the mandate tooth and nail and have sought alternatives to the jab such as regular testing.

Current and former Southwest Airlines workers gathered to protest mandated COVID vaccinations on Monday, Oct. 18 outside the airline’s headquarters in Dallas.

(Video Credit: CBSDFW)

“Southwest acknowledges various viewpoints regarding the COVID-19 vaccine, and we have always supported and will continue to support, our employees’ right to express themselves, with open lines of communication to share issues and concerns,” an airline spokeswoman said.

Steve Goldberg, who is Southwest’s senior vice president of operations and hospitality, and Julie Weber, who is vice president and chief people officer, wrote to employees on Friday that if workers’ exemptions had not been approved by Dec. 8, they could continue working if they followed mask and distancing guidelines until their requests were processed.

The company has given its employees until Nov. 24 to get vaccinated or apply for an exemption. Unvaccinated employees will continue to be paid while their exemptions are reviewed. Southwest says it will allow those who are rejected to continue working “as we coordinate with them on meeting the requirements (vaccine or valid accommodation).”

“This is a change from what was previously communicated. Initially, we communicated that these employees would be put on unpaid leave and that is no longer the case,” the company wrote in a note, which was reviewed by CNBC. Southwest has confirmed the policy change.

United Airlines implemented a vaccine mandate in August which was prior to Biden announcing his executive order. The company told employees that they would be put on unpaid leave if they received an exemption. Employees sued the airline over that and a federal judge has blocked the airline from carrying out its plan at least temporarily.

American Airlines CEO Doug Parker met with union leaders on Thursday to discuss the vaccine mandate and exemptions.

The airline has “indicated that, unlike the approach taken by United, they were exploring accommodations that would allow employees to continue to work,” the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, the union that represents American’s mainline cabin crews, stated in a letter to members on Monday. “They failed to offer any specifics as to what such accommodations might look like at that time.”

Southwest And American Airlines require new-hire employees to be vaccinated.

Although Delta Air Lines is a federal contractor as well, it has not required employee vaccinations yet. In August, the airline announced that unvaccinated employees would have to pay $200 more a month for insurance starting in November.

Americans are against Southwest and other airlines mandating the vaccine:

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