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Southwest Airlines Scraps Plan To Force Unvaccinated Workers Into Unpaid Leave

(Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Dylan Housman Healthcare Reporter
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Southwest Airlines has backed down from a plan to force all unvaccinated workers to go on unpaid leave after Dec. 8, when President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate for federal contractors goes into effect.

Steve Goldberg, Southwest’s senior vice president of operations and hospitality, and Julie Weber, vice president and chief people officer, wrote to employees Friday that if they did not have an exemption approved by the Dec. 8 deadline, they could continue working until a decision had been made on their exemption request, CNBC reported Tuesday. Employees have until Nov. 24 to complete their vaccination or request a exemption.

Employees will continue to be paid while their exemption requests are reviewed, and those who are denied will be allowed to continue working until the company can “coordinate with them on meeting the requirements.” The company is still requiring new hires to be fully vaccinated before they are brought on board.

Major airlines have each handled Biden’s vaccine mandate differently. American Airlines is apparently also looking at loosening its requirements in the short term; the Association of Professional Flight Attendants said Monday that American’s management “indicated that, unlike the approach taken by United, they were exploring accommodations that would allow employees to continue to work” in a meeting last week.

United implemented a vaccine mandate in August, before the Biden administration made an announcement on a federal regulation, and told staff who got an exemption they would be placed on unpaid leave. 96% of United employees are now vaccinated. Delta Airlines, also a federal contractor, has not yet announced mandate guidelines but said 90% of its employees are already vaccinated. (RELATED: Major Airlines Say They Will Keep Vaccine Mandate For Employees In Place, Defying Texas Governor’s Ban)

Hundreds of Southwest employees, customers and other supporters protested the vaccine mandate outside the company’s headquarters in Dallas, Texas, Monday. There was speculation that protests against the mandate caused a recent string of delayed and cancelled flights by the carrier, but Southwest leadership has denied that the two events are connected.