Unvaccinated employees of Southwest Airlines remain concerned about their future with the airline, even though courts have recently granted a reprieve in the federal contractor vaccine mandate case.
Over 8,000 employees organized as the Southwest Freedom Flyers to oppose the vaccine mandate by contacting the airline and hosting a variety of protests at Southwest locations, according to its founder, Tom Bogart.
Bogart said that the airline has yet to acknowledge the group or respond to its concerns.
He told the airline in a letter, “We are an astute collective of approximately several thousand dedicated and hardworking employees who love working for Southwest, spanning all SWA workgroups, both unionized and non-unionized, and includes individual contributors as well as Senior Leaders. I believe that the vast majority of SW Freedom Flyers are the absolute best of what Southwest offers.”
Southwest joined other airlines in announcing last fall that it would require all employees to receive COVID-19 vaccines.
When asked by The Texan about its interactions with the Southwest Freedom Flyers, the airline declined to provide any details. In a letter to the Southwest Airlines executives, Bogart asked specifically whether the airline would be willing to state as its official policy that it will not place unvaccinated employees on unpaid leave as an accommodation for their exemption from the vaccine, as United Airlines has done. Bogart has received no response from Southwest. CEO Gary Kelly stated in October that “I’ve never been in favor of corporations imposing that kind of a mandate. I’m not in favor of that.” He said that the Biden administration forced the airlines’ hand by imposing the mandate on federal contractors, a position that applies to Southwest. However, in December, a Georgia district court judge enjoined the federal contractor mandate from being enforced. The federal government has appealed, and oral argument is set in the 11th Circuit for April 4. “The federal government stated they will not enforce the vaccine mandate for federal contractors, until further notice, due to current legal challenges to the order. If the mandate is eventually upheld, a new deadline would need to be put into place for our Employees,” a spokesperson for Southwest told The Texan. “This development does not change the fact that Southwest continues encouraging all employees, who are able, to get vaccinated against COVID-19, including getting a booster vaccination.” Southwest claims that 93 percent of its employees are vaccinated or have been accommodated, based on voluntary reporting, and did not provide details about accommodations for unvaccinated employees. “Morale is in the dumpster,” Bogart said. He pointed out that Southwest has often used the motto “a symbol of freedom” for the company. In his letter, he urged the company to return to its roots and recognize the freedom of its employees to choose what is best for themselves regarding the emergency authorized vaccines. “We urge you to do this before the discrimination and tribalism that Herb [Kelleher] earnestly warned us about sets in permanently. Let’s work together to reclaim our symbol as the beacon of American Freedom!” While Bogart said those granted exemptions are allowed to continue working while wearing a mask and social distancing as much as possible, one of the reasons for low morale is that unvaccinated employees have been pulled from trips if they were traced to close contact with someone who was COVID-positive. He said the policy became even broader in late December with employees being pulled off trips without determining if they’d been in close contact with a COVID-positive patient. Bogart said that Southwest’s policy before Christmas was that an unvaccinated or exempt employee either lost pay for that trip or had to use sick pay to cover it, and has heard from flight attendants who were pulled from trips even though they were healthy. One flight attendant lost 150 hours of pay because of this policy, he said. Bogart attributes many of the flight delays and cancellations experienced by the airline to these issues, saying that Southwest Freedom Flyers has not organized a “sick out” of any kind. In early January, Southwest stopped COVID-19 contract tracing, and employees aren’t being pulled off flights as often, according to Bogart. Southwest admits that it has changed its policies about contact tracing due to an uptick in cases of the Omicron variant among its employees. “After thoroughly evaluating recent public health guidance, we made the decision to pause our contact tracing initiative and evolve our isolation program from ten to five days for COVID-positive employees who no longer have symptoms or fever for at least 24 hours prior to working,” the airline said. Another concern Bogart has is that the company is hiring new employees and making a COVID-19 vaccine a condition of employment, but not clearly stating that new employees can seek exemptions from the vaccine just like current employees. He’s afraid that once Southwest has hired enough new employees, it will “kick us [unvaccinated employees] off on unpaid leave.” The group has yet to file a lawsuit against Southwest but is considering it. Bogart said many members of the Freedom Flyers have filed complaints for discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Bogart added that his opinions are his own and do not represent those of Southwest Airlines. Disclosure: Unlike almost every other media outlet, The Texan is not beholden to any special interests, does not apply for any type of state or federal funding, and relies exclusively on its readers for financial support. If you’d like to become one of the people we’re financially accountable to, click here to subscribe.