Southwest Airlines has ended its plan to place unvaccinated employees who have applied for a religious or medical exemption to its COVID-19 vaccine mandate on unpaid leave after its Dec. 8 deadline.
Southwest’s senior vice president of operations and hospitality, Steve Goldberg, and Julie Weber, vice president and chief people officer, wrote to staff on Friday regarding the issue, according to CNBC.
The new change will allow Southwest Airlines employees until Nov. 24 to be fully vaccinated or apply for a medical or religious exemption. If an employee’s exemption is not approved by Dec. 8, an employee can continue to work while following mask and distancing guidelines until the request has been reviewed.
“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,” the letter reportedly stated.
Southwest Airlines is a federal contractor subject to the Biden administration’s coronavirus vaccine mandate by Dec. 8, unless exempted.
Hundreds of current and former Southwest employees gathered outside the company’s Dallas headquarters on Monday to protest the vaccine mandate.
The workers held signs reading “Terminate the mandate,” “Freedom not force” and “No jabs for jobs,” KTVT-TV reported.
The group’s stated goal was to fight for medical freedom.
“All who believe in medical freedom are welcome to gather outside Southwest Airlines Headquarters,” a Facebook flyer for the event said. “More than anything, we want to get back to the heart of Southwest hospitality, where all employees feel welcomed, cared for, and appreciated.”
Should Southwest Airlines put unvaccinated staff on unpaid leave?
According to CNBC, Southwest canceled over 1,800 flights during the weekend of Oct. 9-10. At the time, a spokeswoman for the airline denied allegations the cancellations were related to a protest of the vaccine mandate.
“It’s inaccurate,” she said about reports of a “sick-out” among Southwest employees. “There’s a lot of unfounded rumor and speculation circulating.”
Regardless of the recent cancellations, employees argue the coronavirus vaccine should not be a requirement for employment.
“This country stands for freedom, and it should mean that everywhere,” Southwest Airlines pilot Chris Hill told KDFW-TV.
“You should not have to put anything in your body to keep your employment.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton was in attendance at Monday’s protest. He said legal action against the mandate is inevitable, KDFW reported.
“We’re already planning our lawsuits,” he said. “I’m already organizing with other states. I promise you this: We will fight for you. We will do everything under our constitution.”
Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott recently signed an executive order to prohibit any entity in Texas from enforcing a vaccine mandate.