JACKSONVILLE, FL – Southwest Airlines has put off its plan to require all employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or be placed on unpaid leave in favor of one that allows workers to stay on the job until they obtain a religious or medical exemption, however long that takes.
Southwest grabbed headlines earlier this month when it announced that in compliance with a federal mandate for government contractors it would require all its employees to receive COVID-19 vaccinations by December 8.
In response demonstrators gathered outside the carrier’s Dallas headquarters in protest of the policy.
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Southwest later announced that it had abandoned its initial plan, and would instead allow employees to work until their applications for either a medical or religious exemption could be processed.
“If a request for accommodation has not been reviewed or approved by December 8, the Employee will continue to work, while following all COVID mask and distancing guidelines applicable to their position, until the accommodation has been processed,” a Southwest spokesperson said in a written statement.
The statement also said that the carrier would grant all valid exemption requests.
Last week, Southwest canceled thousands of flights due to worker strikes and staffing issues which the company officially blamed on air traffic control problems and disruptive weather.
Based on previous issues, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said in a presentation that heavy flight cancellations and delays can cost the company millions of dollars weekly not just in lost revenue but from reimbursing travelers who request refunds for hotel costs and other expenses of being stranded.
“Southwest acknowledges various viewpoints regarding the Covid-19 vaccine, and 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,” an airline spokeswoman said.
“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,” the statement said.
Meanwhile, the carrier’s main union Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) filed a complaint in the U.S. District for the Northern District of Texas on grounds that the vaccine requirement violates the airlines labor agreement with the union.
That litigation remains pending.