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Will Southwest and American Airlines Follow Through on Vaccine Mandates?

Both airlines initially announced strict deadlines for its employees to get vaccinated. Now, they’re hinting at protections for those applying for exemptions.
By |
David Vogin

After a scrap with its pilots’ union and protests at its headquarters, Southwest Airlines (slightly) changed course and said that unvaccinated employees can keep working past a Dec. 8 deadline requiring federal contractors to mandate the jab for workers—if they apply for a medical or religious exemption.

Previously, the company said workers who were not vaccinated or exempted would be put on unpaid leave. The difference now is that employees who are in the process of applying for an exemption will be allowed to continue working.

“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,” Southwest spokeswoman Brandy King told the Associated Press.

American Airlines, which issued a similar edict with a deadline of November 24, is also allowing for similar protections for those who choose not to get the jab so long as they’re formally applying for an exemption. That’s according to the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which told its union that “[m]anagement indicated that … they were exploring accommodations that would allow employees to continue to work.” The APFA also noted that management “failed to offer any specifics as to what such accommodations might look like.”

Meanwhile, the Allied Pilots Association, the union over American’s pilots, reiterated to its membership in a note that “distractions cannot affect safety,” noting in a memo that these happening “in the flight deck can create dangerous situations.” The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association sent a similar notice after about 100 employees protested outside Southwest’s headquarters; the union represents about 10,000 total pilots.

So in a way, little has changed, except that President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate and Gov. Greg Abbott’s conflicting anti-vaccine mandate mandate are creating an awful lot of hassle for the employers in charge of enforcing one or both or neither of said mandates.

“You can have a bad law that companies disagree with, but it’s easier to deal with a law you don’t like that you understand than uncertainty,” corporate lawyer Rogge Dunn told D CEO yesterday. “With all the legal challenges going on, one day you implement a policy and then three days later, or three weeks later, a court overrules that, and then you’re back to square one. A week later, it may change again.”

Like so much during this pandemic, the conflicting orders are causing large companies some consternation in their decision making.

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