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Southwest scraps plan to put unvaccinated workers on unpaid leave while they await exemption rulings

Southwest Airlines
Posted at 1:37 PM, Oct 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-19 13:37:34-04

Southwest Airlines has scrapped a plan that would have forced unvaccinated workers who are seeking a religious or medical exemption from a company-wide vaccine mandate to take unpaid leave after Dec. 8, CNBC and KTVT-TV in Dallas report.

The airline is a federal contractor, meaning that under an order by the Biden administration, the company must require its workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Under Southwest's original plan, workers who had applied for a religious or medical exemption from the vaccine mandate but had not received a ruling from the company would be forced to take unpaid leave once the policy goes into effect on Dec. 8.

However, CNBC and KTVT reported Tuesday that the company would now allow those workers whose exemption status is still pending to continue working so long as they are "following all COVID mask and distancing guidelines applicable to their position."

Southwest employees have until Nov. 24 to apply for a medical or religious exemption to the mandate.

Southwest's policy change comes about a week after a federal judge in Texas barred United Airlines from putting its workers on unpaid leave while they sought medical or religious exemptions from a vaccine mandate. The ruling was made as part of a civil suit filed by two employees seeking to create a class-action lawsuit against the airline.

Last week, the Southwest said it would keep its vaccine mandate in place, even though Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed an executive order that prevented companies from putting such mandates in place.

Gary Kelly, the CEO of Texas-base Southwest, told CNBC last week that he is opposed to vaccine mandates but that his company will still mandate the shots because they are required to by federal law.

"I've never been in favor of corporations imposing that kind of a mandate," Kelly said. "But the executive order from President Biden mandates that all federal employees and then all federal contractors, which covers all the major airlines, have to have a (vaccine) mandate (by Dec. 8)."