Southwest Airlines said Tuesday that it would back down from its plans to put unvaccinated employees who have applied for, but not yet received, exemptions from the vaccine on unpaid leave beginning December 8.
An internal note sent to employees said that employees whose exemption requests have not been processed or reviewed by December 8 will be able to keep working until their request is processed.
“The employee will continue to work, while following all COVID mask and distancing guidelines applicable to their position, until the accommodation has been processed,” the note said.
In recent weeks, the airline has canceled thousands of flights due to worker shortages that would only get worse if they put more employees on leave. Some have said that the flight cancellations are because of employee “sick-outs,” but airline officials and unions have denied that employees are coordinating their use of sick time.
Southwest is federal contractor
The airline falls under Biden administration requirements that federal contractors must get the vaccine. For that mandate, there is no weekly testing exception for those who don’t want to be vaccinated. The only way out is with a religious or medical exemption.
Those whose exemptions are not granted would then be given adequate time to be vaccinated if they choose to do so, before they would be put on leave or fired, the airline said.
“I encourage all Southwest Employees to meet the federal directive, as quickly as possible, since we value every individual and want to ensure job security for all,” CEO Gary Kelly said in a statement earlier this month.
On Monday, hundreds of employees protested the mandate at the airline’s headquarters in Dallas. Some employees have said that they already tested positive for COVID-19 and don’t think they should have to get the vaccine when they already have antibodies to the virus.
“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 spokesperson said, while claiming she didn’t know about the protest.
Delta bucking trend
Delta Airlines is the only major one so far to avoid a vaccine mandate. CEO Ed Bastian said that 90% of its employees are already vaccinated and that he believes it should be a choice, not forced.
The airline did add a $200 monthly surcharge to the insurance coverage of employees that refuse to be vaccinated, however.
United Airlines had already moved to put employees with vaccine exemptions on indefinite unpaid leave, but was blocked by a Fort Worth, Texas court from implementing that plan.