A federal judge in Texas has rejected a bid by Southwest Airlines pilots to block the company’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
U.S. District Judge Barbara M. G. Lynn denied the pilot union’s request to issue a temporary restraining order against the mandate, saying that the airline can legally require vaccines to maintain its operations and improve safety.
The mandate was instituted by the airline as part of President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate aimed at all government contractors. Southwest, like many airlines, has contracts with the government and flies U.S. mail and federal employees, in addition to providing other services to the government.
The airline said that all employees must be fully vaccinated or have received approval for a medical, disability or religious exemption by December 8 to continue their employment with Southwest.
Although Texas Governor Greg Abbott recently issued an edict banning vaccine mandates for private businesses operating in the state, Southwest insisted it would continue with the requirement in accordance with the federal decree.
The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) sought exemptions for the mandate on the grounds that the vaccine could cause medical side effects that may bring a pilot’s career to an end. SWAPA, which represents around 9,000 pilots for Southwest Airlines, argued that the airline was violating the Railway Labor Act by changing the work and pay rules of the pilots without negotiating. After an unsuccessful plea for an exemption, the union filed an injunction at a federal court in Dallas to temporarily block the mandate.
In her ruling, Judge Lynn said: “Requiring Southwest employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 will likewise improve the safety of air transportation, the efficiency of Southwest’s operations, and further the [collective bargaining agreement]’s goal of safe and reasonable working conditions for pilots. In addition, because Southwest is a federal contractor, the Vaccine Policy is required by law.”
She added that the federal government is Southwest’s single biggest customer and that the union cannot demand that they end their relationship with the federal government to avoid the executive order.
The union said they were disappointed by the ruling and are considering their next steps.
The airline has openly encouraged its workers to request a religious or medical exemption from the vaccine if they object to getting the jab; they have until November 24 to request an exemption.
Southwest CEO Gary Kelly has said that no one will lose their job on the deadline, even if full compliance isn’t reached. He said: “We’re not going to fire anybody who doesn’t get vaccinated. How we work through the people that don’t get vaccinated or don’t seek an accommodation, we’re going to have to figure out and we’re working with the government on that.”
The comments represented a softening from the airline’s earlier stance; Southwest had previously said employees whose requests hadn’t been approved by the deadline would be placed on unpaid leave.
Employees and other individuals have been protesting the mandates at Southwest’s headquarters. The company cancelled more than 1,800 flights earlier this month, blaming staffing shortfalls and weather issues; many believed that the problem may have been due, at least in part, to employees not showing up for work in protest of the mandate, although the airline has denied this played a role.
American Airlines is in a similar position, with CEO Doug Parker recently stating that “we will continue to work with” the employees who do not get a religious or medical exemption by the deadline.
Although it is encouraging to see these CEOs say they don’t plan to fire people, it remains to be seen what will happen to those employees who choose not to expose themselves to the risks of the vaccine.
Sources for this article include: