Southwest drops plan to put unvaccinated workers on unpaid leave

Southwest will no longer put workers awaiting a decision on exemptions from the company's vaccine mandate on unpaid leave.

Instead, such employees will be able to work as their applications for religious or medical exemptions are considered, provided they observe company rules on masks and social distancing, officials from the company said. 

“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,” an announcement Friday by Southwest’s Senior Vice President of Operations and Hospitality Steve Goldberg and Vice President and Chief People Officer Julie Weber said, according to a report by CNBC.

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Employees at the airline have until Nov. 24 to apply for their exemptions. New employees will be required to show proof of vaccination prior to beginning to work for the airline, CNBC reported.

"Southwest encourages all employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccination as the airline strives to meet the federal mandate for government contractors," the airline said in a statement to The Hill. "Southwest intends 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."

As federal contractors, both Southwest Airlines and American Airlines are subject to the Biden administration's Dec. 8 deadline for all employees to be vaccinated.

Leadership from both companies have sought to encourage their employees to apply for exemptions for medical reasons or sincerely held religious beliefs prevent them from getting vaccinated, CNBC noted. 

Still, hundreds of people protested the vaccine mandate on Monday outside of Southwest's Dallas headquarters.

“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,” a spokeswoman for the airline said to CNBC regarding the demonstration.

The Texas-based airline's decision to comply with the Biden administration's mandate is in opposition to orders from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) who recently said that no business in his state could impose a vaccine mandate on employees or customers. 

American Airlines, which is also Texas-based, also said it believes Biden's federal mandate supersedes the state-issued laws.