Southwest Airlines scraps plans to put unvaccinated employees on unpaid leave

Southwest Airlines is dropping plans to put unvaccinated workers that are still waiting to be approved for a medical or religious exemption on unpaid leave starting in December.  

Instead, employees whose accommodations weren't reviewed or approved by Dec. 8 will have to keep working. 

"The employee will continue to work, while following all COVID mask and distancing guidelines applicable to their position, until the accommodation has been processed," according to an internal note sent to employees and obtained by FOX Business. 

Earlier this month, Southwest became the latest airline to require its employees to get inoculated by Dec. 8, although it still gave employees the option to apply for medical or religious exemptions.

The Dallas-based carrier said it began mandating vaccines for its 54,000 employees in order to comply with new rules from the Biden administration requiring companies with federal contracts to have a fully vaccinated staff.

"I encourage all Southwest Employees to meet the federal directive, as quickly as possible, since we value every individual and want to ensure job security for all," CEO Gary Kelly said in a statement earlier this month.  

The carrier said it still intends to grant "valid" requests for medical or religious exemptions. 

However, in the case that a request is not granted, Southwest told employees that it "will provide adequate time for an employee to become fully vaccinated while continuing to work and adhering to safety protocols."

American Airlines, Alaska Airlines and JetBlue are also requiring staff to be vaccinated. United Airlines became the first major airline to do so in August. Since then, the airline said that more than 97% of its workers have been vaccinated. United also said it would put staff who couldn’t get the shots due to medical or religious reasons on unpaid leave until COVID-19 rates go down.

 The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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