Southwest Airlines CANCELS plan to fire unvaxxed workers awaiting exemptions after denying sickouts forced mass flight disruption

US airline Southwest has reversed course on its employee vaccine mandate following a week of protests, denials and canceled flights. Workers are no longer forced to take unpaid leave while applying for exemptions to the mandate.

The passenger carrier will no longer force employees awaiting decision on a religious or medical exemption to the Biden administration's mandatory vaccine order to take unpaid leave until their cases are decided, according to a Friday memo obtained by CNBC on Tuesday. Southwest has confirmed the authenticity of the memo, which gives employees until November 24 to either get vaccinated or apply for an exemption.

Instead of unpaid leave, employees awaiting judgment on their exemptions will continue to receive a paycheck and may even continue working "as [Southwest] coordinate[s] with them on meeting the requirements (vaccine or valid accommodation)," the note explains. Written by senior vice president of operations and hospitality Steve Goldberg and vice president and chief people officer Julie Weber, it reassures workers that they may continue working if their exemptions aren't yet approved so long as they follow masking and social-distancing rules, and promises that staff can reapply if their exemption is denied if they have "new information or circumstances [they] would like the Company to consider."

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SouthWest Airlines cancels over 1,800 flights in 2 days amid rumors of employee ‘sickout’ due to Covid-19 vaccine mandate

The memo's release comes after days of protesting outside Southwest's Dallas headquarters and rumors of sick-outs among air traffic controllers and other employees. Southwest was forced to cancel thousands of flights last week – over 1,000 on Sunday alone – though it refused to acknowledge what was behind the cancellations, in many cases blaming the weather despite clear and sunny skies. Airports were snarled with angry passengers as would-be travelers arrived to find their flights mysteriously cancelled.

Eventually, even CEO Greg Kelly took to CNBC on Thursday to deny that he had ever "been in favor of corporations imposing that kind of a mandate," while continuing to argue employee resistance had nothing to do with the flight cancellations. President Joe Biden himself praised the company for adopting his vaccination mandate, flatly denying employee resistance was contributing to the airline's flight disruptions and insisting the policy was instead "moving the dial to help eliminate the disease." 

As a federal contractor, Southwest had previously planned to put all unvaccinated employees who had not yet received a medical or religious exemption by December 8 on unpaid leave, after the company received a not-so-gentle nudge from the Biden administration. Unlike smaller carriers, under the president's mandate it lacks the option of allowing employees to submit to weekly testing. As of last week, 56,000 Southwest employees had yet to take the shot.

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A Soutwest airlines jet come in for a landing at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport Saturday evening. © Jonathan Newton /The Washington Post via Getty Images
Southwest Airlines pilots and staff are flying in the face of corporate and government vaccine mandates – and about time, too

Competitor United Airlines adopted its own vaccine mandate in August, before Biden had even announced the federal rule, and has similarly threatened the noncompliant with unpaid leave. However, a federal judge in Fort Worth has temporarily barred the airline from moving forward with the penalty. Some 90% of the company's staff are reportedly vaccinated. Earlier this month, fellow US carriers American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, and JetBlue also climbed aboard the mandate express, caving to pressure from the Biden administration, which considers them federal contractors and thus ineligible to opt out of the jab.

Biden revealed his plans to impose a vaccination mandate on all companies with over 100 employees last month through the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. However, the mandate has not yet been implemented, and a number of companies – as well as some state and local authorities – have already vowed to ignore it. Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Florida Governor Rick DeSantis have both introduced measures forbidding vaccine mandates in their states. 

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