Southwest Airlines will not place unvaccinated staff on unpaid leave while they await potential exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, according to new internal guidance from the airline.
Steve Goldberg and Julie Weber, two Southwest Airlines executives, communicated the change with employees in a memo on Friday. The memo, obtained by CNBC News, notes that any staff who have requested an exemption but haven’t yet heard back by the December 8 deadline will not be forced onto unpaid leave.
“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 reportedly said.
It’s unclear what will happen if an exemption request isn’t granted. A spokesperson for Southwest told The Associated Press that any individuals seeking an exemption must apply by November 24.
“While we intend to grant all valid requests for medical and/or religious accommodations, 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,” said a Southwest spokesperson, reports The Washington Examiner.
The reversal follows a turbulent time for Southwest, one of the nation’s largest airlines and one of the four major airlines in the U.S., and comes ahead of the busy holiday season.
Earlier this month, Southwest said poor weather and air traffic control issues forced them to cancel and delay thousands of flights. The Federal Aviation Administration, without naming the airline, pinned the company’s problems on staffing.
Rumors also circulated that Southwest pilots were refusing to work, something that the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association denied was happening. Several days later, the number of cancellations plummeted, and the airline’s service seemed to have returned to normal, according to data from Flight Aware, a flight tracking service.
Southwest has been telling employees that they must be vaccinated against COVID-19 to comply with federal guidelines for contractors. While the airline is based in Texas, the company has ignored a separate rule from Governor Greg Abbott (R-TX) that prohibits vaccine mandates within the state — a rule that is at odds with the Biden administration’s stance.
“Federal action supersedes any state mandate or law, and we would be expected to comply with the President’s Order to remain compliant as a federal contractor,” Southwest told POLITICO last week.
Pilots for Southwest have voiced opposition to the mandate, and have filed a lawsuit to stop it from going into effect.
Delta Airlines, another of the country’s major airlines, decided against pursuing a vaccine mandate but did tell employees that they would be charged an extra $200 a month on their health insurance if they refused to take the vaccine. According to CNBC, Delta’s insurance surcharge for unvaccinated staff will go into effect in early November, at which point, Delta predicts only 5% of its staff will be unvaccinated.