Southwest Airlines reverses course and says it won’t put unvaccinated employees on unpaid leave if they’re seeking an exemption

Southwest Airlines Boeing 737
A Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 in Denver. Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty
  • Southwest Airlines said it will not put unvaccinated workers with a pending exemption on unpaid leave come December.
  • The company said employees can continue working if they follow COVID-safety policies until their request is reviewed.
  • American Airlines’ flight attendant union told its members they will not be terminated if they are not vaccinated.

Southwest Airlines is abandoning its plan to put unvaccinated workers with a pending exemption on unpaid leave this December.

Southwest told employees on Tuesday that those who choose not to get vaccinated due to a medical or religious exemption will not be forced to take unpaid leave come December 8, reported CNBC. The December deadline was imposed by President Joe Biden when he enacted his federal vaccine mandate requiring federal contractors’ employees to be vaccinated.

In a letter to employees seen by CNBC, Southwest senior vice president of operations and hospitality Steve Goldberg and vice president and chief people officer Julie Weber said workers whose medical or religious exemption was not reviewed by the December 8 deadline would not be put on unpaid leave. To continue working, these employees must agree to follow mask and social distancing policies until their exemption request is reviewed.

Southwest did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

Southwest is not the only carrier loosening its vaccine requirements. American Airlines’ flight attendant union, The Association of Professional Flight Attendants, told its members on Monday that those without the COVID-19 vaccine or an exemption will not be automatically separated from the company after the deadline to be inoculated, which for American employees is November 24.

“For those flight attendants who remain unvaccinated and do not receive an accommodation, you will not be automatically removed from service or terminated from employment on the deadline for compliance,” the Association of Professional Flight Attendants said in an October 18 letter to members. “Our contract provides for a process that must be followed before anyone can be terminated.”

On October 1, American Airlines said unvaccinated employees would not be able to work at American after the company’s November 24 deadline, and the company told Insider on Monday that it was still figuring out the exemption process, though employees are still required to show proof of vaccination by the deadline. However, American did not say whether workers who are hesitant to get the shot by either the company’s deadline or Biden’s deadline will be terminated or not.

While both Southwest and American have taken steps to reassure worker job security, United Airlines has stood firm in its decision to require all employees without an approved exemption to either be vaccinated or be fired. However, a Texas federal judge recently forced United to temporarily halt its plan of putting unvaccinated workers seeking medical or religious accommodation on unpaid leave. The ruling came after six United employees filed a lawsuit claiming the company’s strict vaccine mandate was discriminatory and not a reasonable accommodation.