BY TYLER DURDENTUESDAY, OCT 19, 2021 – 03:05 PM
One day after hundreds of Southwest Airlines employees protested outside the carrier’s Dallas headquarters against the company’s pending Covid-19 vaccine mandate, the company has caved.
According to CNBC, the airline has scrapped a plan to place unvaxxed employees who have applied for – but not yet received a religious or medical exemption, on unpaid leave starting Dec. 8.
Southwest Airlines and American Airlines are among the carriers that are federal contractors and subject to a Biden administration requirement that their employees are vaccinated against Covid-19 by Dec. 8 unless they are exempt for medical or religious reasons. Rules for federal contractors are stricter than those expected for large companies, which will allow for regular Covid testing as an alterative to a vaccination. –CNBC
In recent days, executives for both Southwest and American urged employees to apply for exemptions if they can’t get vaccinated for a legitimate medical – or sincerely held religious belief.
In the meantime, the company has given employees until Nov. 24 to finish their vaccinations or apply for an exemption – and will continue paying them while the company reviews their requests, according to the report.
It will also allow those with rejected applications 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 reviewed by CNBC.
Last week, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said that while he personally disagrees with the vaccine mandate, the company would be forced to implement them because they’re a federal contractor.
“I’ve never been in favor of corporations imposing that kind of a mandate. I’m not in favor of that. Never have been,” he told CNBC. “But the executive order from President Biden mandates that all federal employees and then all federal contractors, which covers all the major airlines, have to have a [vaccine] mandate … in place by Dec. 8, so we’re working through that.”
Now, Southwest has decided to lean in favor of unvaccinated employees for the time being.
Other airlines aren’t deviating. United Airlines – which has a 96% vaccination rate among staff, instituted a vaccine mandate in August – one month before the Biden administration issued the Dec. 8 guidance for federal contractors. The company informed staff that they would be placed on unpaid leave if they received exemptions. Several employees sued the company over the decision, and a Ft. Worth, Texas judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking the airline from moving forward with its plan.
American Airlines CEO Doug Parker, meanwhile, met with labor union leaders last Thursday to discuss how to move forward. Airline management “indicated that, unlike the approach taken by United, they were exploring accommodations that would allow employees to continue to work,” according to a Monday note by the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, the union that represents American’s mainline cabin crews. “They failed to offer any specifics as to what such accommodations might look like at that time.”