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Southwest scraps plan to place unvaccinated staff on unpaid leave

written by Isabella Richards | October 20, 2021
Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-8 MAX, pictured at Las Vegas International. (Tomás Del Coro/Wikicommons)

Southwest Airlines has turned back on its former plan to put unvaccinated employees yet to receive an exemption on unpaid leave.

The Dallas-based company was originally set on placing employees on unpaid leave if they did not receive an exemption for medical or religious reasons following the mandate announced in early October.

Southwest is giving employees until 24 November to apply for exemptions, CNBC first reported, reviewing a staff memo.

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It was written by the low-cost carrier’s senior vice president of operations and hospitality, Steve Goldberg, and Julie Weber, vice-president and chief people officer.

“This is a change from what was previously communicated. Initially, we communicated that these employees would be put on unpaid leave and that is no longer the case,” the memo read.

The carrier will continue to pay employees while their exemption request is reviewed, and those who are rejected can continue working “as we coordinate with them on meeting the requirements (vaccine or valid accommodation).”

Major airlines across the United States mandated the COVID-19 vaccination after President Joe Biden announced in September requiring companies with more than 100 employees to enforce the jab by 8 December.

Southwest, as a federal contractor, made the move in early October, requiring all 56,000 employees to be double jabbed.

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The airline said the unvaccinated employees must maintain social distancing guidelines and mask wearing while waiting for the exemption request to be finalised.

Southwest’s rule change comes only days after over 200 protestors opposing the mandate gathered outside its headquarters in Dallas on Monday.

The protesters participated to fight for ‘medical freedom’ at the corner of Denton and Love Field drive.

A Southwest spokesperson said to CNBC the company “acknowledges” the various views employees have about the vaccination.

“We have always supported, and will continue to support, our employees’ right to express themselves, with open lines of communication to share issues and concerns,” she said.

American Airlines, another US competitor of Southwest, has also said it will begin “exploring accommodations” for employees who choose not to get vaccinated, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants said in a note on Monday.

An American Airlines spokesman, Matt Miller, said in a statement the company “will not” be placing any members on unpaid leave as part of the federal mandate.

But the Dallas-Fort Worth-based airline said choosing to not get vaccinated, or receive an exemption may result in termination, despite the company currently sorting out the exemption process.

Despite these moves, United Airlines is still committed to firing over 200 workers for not receiving the vaccination.

Although the majority of United’s employees have followed the mandate, the company faced scrutiny in September as some staff filed a lawsuit over denying vaccination exemptions.

The staff filed the class action lawsuit to the US District Court for the Northern District of Texas-Fort Worth Division claiming they were placed on unpaid leave on discriminatory grounds.

But last week in response, US District Judge Mark Pittman blocked United’s plan to put employees on leave if they requested an exemption.

 

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