Southwest drops plan to put unvaccinated staff on unpaid leave starting in December

On October 11, 2021, travelers waited to check in at Southwest Airlines' ticketing counter at Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport in Baltimore, Maryland.
Steve Goldberg, Southwest's senior vice-president of operations and hospitality and Julie Weber (vice president and chief people officer) wrote to employees on Friday to inform them that employees could not request an exemption if they haven't been approved by December 8. They can continue working while complying with mask and distancing guidelines, until the request is reviewed.

Recent statements by executives at both airlines have sought to reassure employees about their job security under the mandate. They encouraged them to apply to exemptions if they are unable to get vaccinated due to medical reasons or a deeply held religious belief. When the airlines report their quarterly results on Thursday morning, they will likely face additional questions about the mandate. Pilot labor unions sought to block mandates and sought alternative options like regular testing.

American Airlines and Southwest Airlines are two of the federally contracted carriers. They are subject to a Biden administration mandate that all employees be vaccinated against Covid-19 no later than Dec. 8, unless exempted for religious or medical reasons. Federal contractors have stricter rules than large companies, and will be subject to regular Covid testing as an alternative to vaccination.

Southwest Airlines has canceled a plan to allow unvaccinated employees who applied for, but didn't receive, a religious or medical exemption to be paid unpaid leave beginning at a federal deadline in December.

Employees have until November 24 to complete their vaccinations or apply in order to be exempted. The company will pay them until they review their requests. It said that it will continue to pay them as long as the company coordinates with them on fulfilling the requirements (vaccines or valid accommodations).

"This is a departure from what was previously communicated. We initially communicated that these Employees would go on unpaid leave. However, that is not the case anymore," they wrote in the note. CNBC reviewed it.

Southwest has confirmed the policy changes, just weeks ahead of the deadline.

United Airlines began its vaccine mandate in August, one month before the official announcement of government regulations. United Airlines had warned staff that they would put them on unpaid leaves if they were granted exemptions. The company has vaccinated more than 96% of its employees. The company was sued by employees over unpaid leave. A federal judge in Fort Worth Texas temporarily stopped the airline's plans.

American's CEO Doug Parker met with labor union leaders Thursday to discuss exemptions from vaccines.

American Airlines management "indicated they, unlike United's approach, were exploring accommodations that would permit employees to continue working," the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents American's mainline cabin crews said Monday in a note to its members. They did not provide any details about what such accommodations might look at that point.

The Dallas Morning News reported that hundreds of Southwest employees, customers, and other protestors demonstrated against the mandate to vaccinate Monday outside Southwest Airlines headquarters in Dallas.

A spokeswoman for the airline said that the carrier was aware of the protest.

She stated that "Southwest recognizes different viewpoints about the Covid-19 vaccine and we have always supported, will continue to support, employees' rights to express themselves with open lines to communication to share concerns and issues."

Southwest's Goldberg, and Weber informed employees that if they are denied an exemption request, employees can apply again if they have "new information or circumstances" the Company would like to consider.

Spokesmen for Southwest stated that new employees must be vaccinated, just like American Airlines requires for its mainline operations.

Delta Air Lines, a federal contractor, is subject to government regulations. However, it has not yet required staff vaccinations. The carrier reported last week that 90% of its approximately 80,000 employees were vaccinated. Delta announced in August that unvaccinated employees would pay $200 more per month for company insurance. This will take effect from November.