Travelers wait to check-in at the Southwest Airlines ticket booth at Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport on October 11, 2021 in Baltimore, Maryland.
Kevin Dietsch | Getty Images
Southwest Airlines has abandoned a plan to put unvaccinated employees who have filed an application but haven’t received a religious or medical exemption on unpaid leave starting in December.
Southwest Airlines and American Airlines are among the airlines that are federal contractors and have a Biden administrative obligation to have their employees vaccinated against Covid-19 by December 8, unless exempted for medical or religious reasons. The rules for federal contractors are stricter than expected for large companies, which enables regular Covid tests as an alternative to vaccination.
Executives of both airlines have been trying in the past few days to reassure employees about job security under the mandate and asking them to apply for exemptions if they cannot be vaccinated for medical or sincere religious beliefs. Airlines are expected to ask more questions about the mandate when the quarterly results are released on Thursday morning. Pilot unions have tried to block the mandates or looked for alternatives such as regular tests.
Southwest’s Senior Vice President of Operations and Hospitality, Steve Goldberg, and Vice President and Chief People Officer Julie Weber, wrote to employees on Friday that if employees’ requests for an exception are not approved by December 8th, they will continue to work in accordance with the mask and spacing guidelines until the request has been verified.
The company gives employees until November 24 to complete their vaccinations or apply for an exemption. It will continue to pay them while the company reviews their requests, saying that it will allow the rejected individuals to continue working “while we coordinate with them on whether the requirements (vaccine or valid accommodation) are met”.
“This is a change from what was previously communicated. Initially, we communicated that these employees were taking unpaid leave and that is no longer the case,” they wrote on the CNBC-verified note.
Southwest confirmed the policy change, which comes just weeks before the deadline.
United Airlines launched its own vaccine mandate in August, a month before the government rules were announced. United had told employees that if they were given exemptions, they would take unpaid leave. More than 96% of the employees are vaccinated. Some employees sued the company for unpaid leave, and a federal judge in Fort Worth, Texas has temporarily prevented the airline from proceeding with its plan.
American CEO Doug Parker met with union leaders Thursday to discuss vaccination exemptions.
American Airlines management “indicated that, contrary to United’s approach, they are looking for accommodations that allow employees to keep working,” said the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, the union that directs American flight attendants Airlines represents, in a notice to members Monday. “You have not given any information about what such accommodations might look like at that time.”
Hundreds of Southwest employees, customers and other protesters demonstrated against the vaccination mandate outside Southwest Airlines’ headquarters in Dallas on Monday, the Dallas Morning News reported.
An airline spokeswoman said the airline was aware of the demonstration.
“Southwest recognizes various positions regarding the Covid-19 vaccine and we always support and will continue to support the right of our employees to speak up by having open lines of communication to share problems and concerns” , she said.
Southwest’s Goldberg and Weber advised employees that if their application for exemption is denied, employees can reapply if the employee “has new information or circumstances that the company should consider”.
Southwest is demanding that new hires be vaccinated, as is American Airlines for new staff for mainline operations, spokesmen said.
Delta Air Lines is also a federal contractor who is subject to state requirements but does not yet require staff to be vaccinated. Last week, the airline reported that around 90% of its 80,000 or so employees are vaccinated. In August, Delta announced that unvaccinated employees would pay $ 200 more for company health insurance from November.