You may have seen media reports today suggesting that Southwest Airlines has caved on its employee vaccine mandate under mounting pressure from flight attendants and pilots. It’s actually much more complicated.
No, Southwest Has Not Caved On Vaccine Mandate, But Has Updated Its Exemption Timeline
It’s true: Southwest Airlines told employees that it will not place unvaccinated employees who were not approved for a religious or medical exemption on unpaid leave starting December 8th, the federal deadline for government contractors.
Julie Weber, Southwest’s Senior Vice President and Chief People Officer, told employees in a memo that they if their exemption request had not been approved, they could continue to work beyond the December 8th deadline while wearing masks and following distancing guidelines.
Employees have until November 24th to seek an exemption. Up until now, Southwest Airlines had told employees that were not exempt would be placed on unpaid leave on December 8th.
But that’s not the end of the story. The memo indicated this would be on a temporary basis until the exemption request was resolved. It also does not apply to those who did not seek an exemption and still refused to be vaccinated.
The Exemption Wink-Wink, Nudge-Nudge
Pilots and other employees picketed yesterday in Dallas over the mandate. The Association of Professional Flight Attendants, the union that represents AA cabin crews, has assured flight attendants “unlike the approach taken by United, [Southwest is] exploring accommodations that would allow employees to continue to work.” United plans to place employees who have been granted an exception on unpaid leave, though a federal judge has temporarily blocked that move while a lawsuit is pending.
American and Southwest Airlines intend to allow employees who have received an exemption to continue to work, subject to testing requirements currently under consideration.
It continues to be my belief that exemptions will be liberally granted, allowing Southwest and American to “save face” by complying with federal law, while at the same time granting exemptions for “sincere religious beliefs” without deeply questioning such convictions.
There will be some employees who simply refuse to seek an exemption, arguing they should not need to seek an exemption to be spared from a mandatory vaccine. But for the most part, employees will be able to keep their jobs simply by asserting a religious or medical reason for their decision.
Contrary to some reports, Southwest has not caved in on the mandate. However, it will no longer place employees on unpaid leave who have an exemption request pending or were recently rejected (and there is no indication that anyone has been rejected).
The takeaway, however, is that Southwest and American are encouraging employees to file for exemptions and unions are aiding this effort, a marked contrast from United Airlines and the unions representing its front-line employees.