Southwest Airlines and American Airlines are federal contractors that are subject to coronavirus-related mandates of the Biden administration.
In a major announcement, Southwest has dropped its plan to put unvaccinated workers with pending exemptions on unpaid leave after the Dec. 8 deadline.
A message to staff from Southwest’s senior vice president Steven Goldberg confirmed that employees can continue to work while following mask and distancing guidelines until the request has been reviewed.
This assumes the employee has requested an exemption for a religious or medical reason.
New-hire employees for both American and Southwest are required to show proof of Covid-19 vaccination before their first day.
CNBC notes that “rules for federal contractors are stricter than those expected for large companies.”
Other private companies can allow for regular Covid testing as an alternative to vaccination.
Executives at both Southwest and American have tried to reassure employees about job security under the mandate.
Employees need to receive exemptions if they can’t get vaccinated for medical or for a sincerely held religious belief.
Pilots labor unions have sought to block the mandates or sought alternatives like regular testing.
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The company is giving employees until Nov. 24 to finish their vaccinations or apply for an exemption. It will continue paying them while the company reviews their requests, and said it will allow those who are rejected to continue working “as we coordinate with them on meeting the requirements (vaccine or valid accommodation).”
“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,” they wrote in the note, which was reviewed by CNBC.
Southwest confirmed the policy change, which comes just weeks before the deadline.
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United Airlines implemented its own vaccine mandate in August, a month before the government rules were announced. United had told staff that they would be put on unpaid leave if they received exemptions. More than 96% of its staff is vaccinated. Some employees sued the company over the unpaid leave and a federal judge in Fort Worth, Texas, has temporarily blocked the airline from going forward with its plan.
American’s CEO, Doug Parker, met with labor union leaders on Thursday to discuss vaccine exemptions.
American Airlines management “indicated that, unlike the approach taken by United, they were exploring accommodations that would allow employees to continue to work,” the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, the union that represents American’s mainline cabin crews, said in a note to members Monday. “They failed to offer any specifics as to what such accommodations might look like at that time.”