Southwest Airlines CEO says unvaccinated employees won't lose their jobs, despite a federal mandate

·3 min read
American Airlines and Southwest Airlines planes
American Airlines and Southwest Airlines planes. HMBSoFL Photography/Shutterstock.com
  • Southwest's CEO said the airline won't fire unvaccinated staff - an apparent softening of its stance.

  • The airline said in early October that staff need to be fully vaccinated "to continue employment."

  • Biden's federal vaccine mandate covers many airlines, including Southwest.

Southwest Airlines will not fire unvaccinated employees despite a federal vaccine mandate, CEO Gary Kelly said on Thursday.

President Joe Biden announced in September that federal contractors, including staff who work for airlines that carry out business with the government, must ensure their employees are vaccinated against COVID-19 by December 8.

Southwest was among a number of airlines that earlier this month announced unvaccinated employees could risk losing their job as a result of the mandate. On Thursday, Southwest toned down their previous statements.

"We're not going to fire anybody who doesn't get vaccinated," Southwest CEO Kelly said in the carrier's third quarter earnings. "Nobody is going to lose their job on December the 9th if we're not perfectly in compliance."

Kelly described it as a "work in progress" and said that Southwest expected to continue "working in good faith to meet the requirements of the executive order."

Southwest said October 4 that workers would need to be fully vaccinated by November 24 "to continue employment," per Reuters.

Southwest told staff on Tuesday that those who choose not to get vaccinated because of a medical or religious exemption won't be forced to take unpaid leave come December 8, CNBC reported.

A Southwest spokesperson told Insider: "While Southwest encourages every Employee to receive the COVID-19 vaccination, the airline does not intend to lose any Employee over the vaccination mandate."

Other airlines have maintained that staff who remain unvaccinated or do not have an exemption from vaccination could face losing their jobs.

American Airlines told employees on October 1 that US-based staff and some international crew members must get vaccinated before November 24, and those who don't "will not be able to work at American Airlines."

An American Airlines spokesperson told Insider Friday that employees who do not provide proof of vaccination or apply for an exemption by November 24 would lose their jobs.

"We shared this in a previous employee memo and it still holds true: 'To be clear, if you fail to comply with the requirement, the result will be termination from the company,'" the spokesperson said.

The airline would be in touch with those staff who don't comply with the November deadline in order to discuss next steps, the spokesperson said. The company expected that a "small" number of staff would not be in compliance with the requirement by the federal deadline, they added.

American's president Robert Isom said Thursday: "We don't expect anybody to leave American Airlines."

"The vast majority of our team members are vaccinated, and we're working through the process," he said during a third quarter earnings conference call.

American Airlines' flight attendant union, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, told its members on Monday that they won't be immediately fired if they remain unvaccinated past the airline's deadline of November 24.

Meanwhile, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby told CBS Mornings on October 13 that the carrier was in the process of terminating 232 employees that haven't had a COVID-19 vaccine.

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