Southwest scraps plan to put unvaccinated employees on unpaid leave

Southwest Airlines will not place unvaccinated employees on unpaid leave as they wait for their exemption requests to be reviewed, the company said.

Under President Joe Biden's mandate for federal contractors, employees must be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 by Dec. 8 unless they have received medical or religious exemptions.

Southwest had said employees who did not meet the requirement by the deadline would be placed on unpaid leave, but it recently changed course, CNBC reported. Airline officials told employees in a note Friday that they could continue to work and get paid but would have to follow masking and social distancing guidelines if their requests for exemptions were pending.

"This is a change from what was previously communicated," said the airline's senior vice president of operations and hospitality, Steve Goldberg, and its vice president and chief people officer, Julie Weber. "Initially, we communicated that these employees would be put on unpaid leave and that is no longer the case."

CNBC said it had reviewed the note. Southwest said that if a worker's request is denied, it will continue working with the employee "as we coordinate with them on meeting the requirements (vaccine or valid accommodation)." Employees would also be able to reapply for exemptions if they have new information they want the company to consider.

Southwest is giving its employees until Nov. 24 to apply for exemptions.

NBC News has not reviewed the letter. A company spokesperson confirmed Tuesday that the policy was changed last week.

"If an accommodation has not been reviewed or approved by December 8, 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 spokesperson said in a statement. "While we intend to grant all valid requests for medical and/or religious accommodations, in the event a request is not granted, the company will provide adequate time for an employee to become fully vaccinated while continuing to work and adhering to safety protocols."