Reversing a position announced earlier this month, Southwest Airlines will not place on unpaid leave employees who have requested but not received by Dec. 8 an exemption to the carrier's Covid-19 vaccine mandate, according to a CNBC report.
CNBC said Southwest confirmed its report, which indicated that Southwest SVP of operations and hospitality Steve Goldberg and VP and chief people officer Julie Weber on Oct. 15 sent employees a letter that said they could continue to work even if their request for a medical or religious exemption was not received by Dec. 8. Previously, the carrier had indicated that all such exemptions needed to be approved by that date for employees to avoid unpaid leave.
"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," Goldberg and Weber wrote, according to CNBC, which indicated it had viewed the letter. Southwest did not immediately respond to a BTN request seeking confirmation.
United Airlines this year mandated all employees receive a Covid-19 vaccine, but wasn't matched by other large U.S. carriers until the White House earlier this month noted they fall under the category of federal contractors, which are subject to the Biden administration's vaccine-mandate executive orders.
At that point, Southwest indicated it would require all employees by Dec. 8 to either be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 or approved for a religious, disability or medical exemption, or else they would be placed on unpaid leave. Now, the company will continue to pay unvaccinated employees while it reviews their requests for exemptions, according to CNBC, and those employees will not be placed on leave.
The move could help alleviate what could prove to be a chaotic Thanksgiving weekend travel experience, given the timing of other carriers' vaccine mandates as well as that of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration.
Like other civilian federal workers, TSA employees must be vaccinated by Nov. 22, subject to exemptions, the Monday of Thanksgiving week. TSA administrator David Pekoske last week told CNN that about 60 percent of employees were fully vaccinated.
Executive Travel founder and chairman Steve Glenn in an email this week warned the airline and TSA vaccination deadlines could cause "the biggest air travel mess in history during Thanksgiving weekend," one that could "reverberate for days, weeks or even months."
Noting the widespread Southwest delays and cancellations earlier this month, Glenn suggested several ways to mitigate potential travel problem should the vaccine mandates remain, including arriving at the airport at least three hours prior to departure, making backup reservations or simply not flying. "I can't believe I am saying this," Glenn wrote, "but you might want to consider simply staying home for the Thanksgiving holiday."