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Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Southwest: We won’t put unvaccinated workers on unpaid leave

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If unvaccinated employees petition for a medical or religious exemption, Southwest Airlines will allow them to continue working into early December rather than putting them on unpaid leave.

Federal contractors, including major U.S. airlines, have until December 8 to force employees to acquire COVID-19 vaccines.

Employees must show proof of immunization or make a request for an exemption from vaccination by Nov. 24, according to Southwest spokesperson Brandy King.

Employees who haven’t had their requests reviewed or granted by Dec. 8 will be able to continue working, she said. According to the company, employees who had not been vaccinated or who had received an exemption would be placed on unpaid leave.

“While we intend to grant all valid requests for 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,” King said.

Southwest employees were advised of the deadline extension on Friday. Employees who are allowed medical or religious exemptions would most likely be required to wear face masks and undergo regular testing, according to American Airlines, but the company is currently ironing out the details.

“American will not be placing any team members on unpaid leave as part of the federal vaccine mandate,”  stated American Airlines spokesman Matt Miller.

Southwest and American Airlines are also based in Texas, where the Republican governor has ordered no vaccinations for staff or passengers.

Both said they’ll follow President Joe Biden’s federal decree requiring contractors to be vaccinated, which they believe has legal precedence over state regulations.

Southwest Chairman and CEO Gary Kelly had previously stated that the airline “must join our industry partners in complying with the federal government’s COVID-19 immunization requirement.”

The pilots’ union, however, urged a judge to temporarily halt the ruling after that comment, claiming that Southwest should speak with the union over the problem.

In federal court, a hearing is set for Friday. Anti-mandate protestors gathered at the airline’s headquarters this week. Kelly has expressed reservations about the vaccine mandate. He told ABC-TV last week, “We are not going to dismiss any staff over this.”

“We are urging all our employees to get vaccinated. If they can’t get vaccinated, we’re urging them to seek accommodation.” We’re advising them to look for an alternative if they can’t get vaccinated.”

The first U.S. airline to declare a vaccine requirement for employees, United Airlines has begun disciplinary action against around 200 employees who did not receive the shots or requested an exemption.

Chicago-based United employs 67,000 people in the United States. It claims that 96% of staff have been vaccinated, with 3% — around 2,000 people — requesting an exemption.

United is awaiting the outcome of a lawsuit filed by employees in Texas challenging the airline’s decision to place employees on unpaid leave if they are granted an exemption.

Delta Air Lines Inc. has a more lax policy. Despite the fact that it is a federal contractor, Delta says it will allow employees to undergo periodical testing if they do not want to be vaccinated, but they will have to pay a $200 monthly extra on their health insurance.

Last week, CEO Ed Bastian stated that 90 percent of Delta employees have been vaccinated, with a goal of reaching 95 percent in November.

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