- The memo reassures workers that they may continue working if their exemptions aren’t yet approved.
- Instead of unpaid leave, Southwest employees awaiting judgement will continue to receive a paycheck.
- If their exemption is denied, the staff can reapply if they have new information or circumstances.
Southwest Airlines employees are no longer forced to take unpaid leave while applying for exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccination mandate.
Following a week of protests, denials and canceled flights, the airline has reversed course on its worker vaccine mandate.
Southwest Airlines will no longer force employees awaiting decision on a religious or medical exemption to the mandatory vaccine order to take unpaid leave until their cases are decided, according to a memo obtained by news services today.
Southwest has confirmed the authenticity of the memo, which gives employees until November 24 to either get vaccinated or apply for an exemption.
Instead of unpaid leave, employees awaiting judgment on their exemptions will continue to receive a paycheck and may even continue working “as [Southwest] coordinate[s] with them on meeting the requirements (vaccine or valid accommodation),” the note explains.
Written by senior vice president of operations and hospitality Steve Goldberg and vice president and chief people officer Julie Weber, it reassures workers that they may continue working if their exemptions aren’t yet approved so long as they follow masking and social-distancing rules, and promises that staff can reapply if their exemption is denied if they have “new information or circumstances [they] would like the Company to consider.”
The memo’s release comes after days of protesting outside Southwest’s Dallas headquarters and rumors of sick-outs among air traffic controllers and other employees. Southwest was forced to cancel thousands of flights last week – over 1,000 on Sunday alone – though it refused to acknowledge what was behind the cancellations, in many cases blaming the weather despite clear and sunny skies. Airports were snarled with angry passengers as would-be travelers arrived to find their flights mysteriously cancelled.
As a federal contractor, Southwest Airlines had previously planned to put all unvaccinated employees who had not yet received a medical or religious exemption by December 8 on unpaid leave.
Unlike smaller carriers, under the president’s mandate it lacks the option of allowing employees to submit to weekly testing. As of last week, 56,000 Southwest employees had yet to take the shot.
Southwest’s competitor United Airlines adopted its own vaccine mandate in August, before Biden had even announced the federal rule, and has similarly threatened the noncompliant with unpaid leave. However, a federal judge in Fort Worth has temporarily barred the airline from moving forward with the penalty. Some 90% of the company’s staff are reportedly vaccinated.
Earlier this month, fellow US carriers American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, and JetBlue also adopted a federal vaccination mandate, since they are considered to be federal contractors and thus ineligible to opt out of the jab.