Southwest Airlines has reversed course, dropping its plan to put unvaccinated employees who have applied for but not yet received religious or medical exemptions on unpaid leave.
Steve Goldberg, senior vice president of operations and hospitality for Southwest, and Julie Weber, vice president and chief people officer, wrote a memo to staff Friday that any employee still awaiting an exemption from COVID-19 vaccination by the Dec. 8 deadline will not be forced into unpaid leave, CNBC reported. Instead, they will be permitted to continue working while following all masking and physical distancing guidelines.
“This is a change from what was previously communicated,” Goldberg and Weber stated. “Initially, we communicated that these employees would be put on unpaid leave and that is no longer the case.”
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A representative for Southwest told the Associated Press any airline staffers seeking a medical or religious exemption must have their requests in by Nov. 24.
“While we intend to grant all valid requests for medical and/or religious accommodations,” a spokesperson told The Washington Examiner, “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.”
It’s not yet clear what will happen if employees whose exemption requests are denied refuse to receive a COVID-19 vaccination.
The policy reversal comes at a tumultuous time for Southwest.
In early October, Southwest Airlines blamed poor weather and air traffic control issues for the thousands of flights that were either canceled or delayed. The Federal Aviation Administration, however, told Fox Business it has not experienced any major staffing issues.
There were concurrent reports suggesting the true reason flights were canceled or delayed was because pilots and crew members were refusing to work in protest of the airline’s vaccination mandate. Unnamed sources told various journalists employees at Southwest staged a so-called “sickout” over President Joe Biden’s edict requiring all employers with 100 or more staffers to require workers to provide proof of vaccination.
The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association denied that was the case.
Despite widespread staffing shortages ahead of the busy holiday season, Southwest has been telling its staffers they must be vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to comply with federal guidelines put in place by the White House. However, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) of Texas, where Southwest is headquartered, has banned vaccination mandates in the Lone Star State.
A spokesperson for Southwest told Politico that the Biden administration’s “federal action supersedes any state mandate or law, and we would be expected to comply with the president’s order to remain compliant as a federal contractor.”
Several pilots with Southwest have filed a lawsuit over the mandate, asking the court to grant a temporary injunction against their employer’s vaccination rule.
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