Southwest Airlines backtracks on plan to put unvaccinated employees on unpaid leave

·2 min read

Southwest Airlines is dropping its plan to put unvaccinated employees on unpaid leave if they haven’t received a religious or medical exemption by the Dec. 8 federal deadline.

Driving the news: Employees will be able to continue working if they follow mask and distancing guidelines until their exemption request has been reviewed, per a staff memo first reported by CNBC.

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  • If the exemption request is denied, employees can reapply as long as they provide “new information or circumstances” they would like the company to consider.

Why it matters: After announcing that it would abide by federal regulations and require vaccines for all employees, the airline has received criticism from both the pilot’s union and conservative politicians.

  • This change opens up a potential loophole for unvaccinated employees to continue working as long as they come up with “new information” they’d like the company to consider.

What’s happening: Southwest’s senior vice president of operations and hospitality, Steve Goldberg, and Julie Weber, vice president and chief people officer, announced the change of plans in internal communication to staff on Friday.

The context: Over 100 people gathered outside Southwest’s headquarters earlier this week to protest the airline’s vaccine mandate.

  • If the airline doesn’t enforce its vaccine mandate, it could lose lucrative government contracts.

  • United Airlines employees recently sued that company over its unpaid-leave policy, and a federal judge in Fort Worth temporarily blocked the airline from going forward with its plan.

  • The CEO of American Airlines met with labor union leaders on Thursday to discuss vaccine exemptions, according to CNBC.

What they’re saying: “Southwest encourages all employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccination as the airline strives to meet the federal mandate for government contractors,” a Southwest spokesperson told Axios, adding: “Southwest intends to grant all valid requests for medical and/or religious accommodations.”

What we're watching: It’s only a matter of time before Southwest’s vaccine policy is being litigated in a courtroom somewhere.

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