American, Southwest CEOs say they don’t plan to fire employees over federal vaccine mandate

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Southwest Airlines Chairman and CEO Gary Kelly (R) speaks alongside American Airlines chairman and CEO Doug Parker (L) following a meeting with other airline executives at the White House about extending economic assistance to the airlines, in Washington, DC, September 17, 2020.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

Southwest Airlines and American Airlines CEOs on Thursday said they don’t expect to fire unvaccinated workers, softening their tone as the deadline for a federal mandate approaches.

Starting Dec. 8, the Biden administration will require federal contractors, including those two carriers, Delta, United and others, to ensure that their staff are vaccinated against Covid-19 unless employees are granted an exemption for medical or religious reasons.

Southwest and American have recently relaxed their rhetoric on the mandate, urging staff who don’t plan to get vaccinated to apply for an exemption. Earlier this month, each carrier told employees they would need to be vaccinated or receive an exemption to continue working there.

Southwest last Friday told employees it no longer planned to put them on unpaid leave if the company hasn’t reviewed or approved their requests by the Dec. 8 deadline, CNBC reported Tuesday.

Employees and other individuals have protested the vaccine mandate at each carrier’s headquarters this month. Some of their labor unions have also opposed the mandate.

“If they can’t get vaccinated, then we’re asking them to seek an accommodation for religious reasons or medical reasons and we’ll evaluate each one of those,” Southwest CEO Gary Kelly told CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street.” “As long as they’re valid we’ll be approving those.”

“I’m not going to fire anybody,” Kelly said, after the company released quarterly results

American’s CEO Doug Parker said the vast majority of the carrier’s employees are vaccinated and that a small minority “almost certainly” will have a religious or medical exemption by the deadline “and those who aren’t we’ll continue to work with.”

United Airlines issued a strict companywide mandate in August, a month before President Joe Biden issued the new vaccine rules, and United has said that more than 96% of its 67,000 U.S. employees are vaccinated.

United’s CEO Scott Kirby on Wednesday said travelers should be aware that other airlines’ scrambling to catch up to the mandate requirements could compromise those carriers’ operations. “Caveat emptor,” Kirby said during the Chicago-based airline’s quarterly call.

The federal vaccine mandate doesn’t appear to apply to the regional airlines that fly sometimes half of larger carrier’s flights, however, officials at United and American said. American’s CEO Parker said Thursday that that applies to its wholly-owned subsidiary airlines as well.

Airlines and other federal contractors won’t have to provide vaccination proof or other documentation to the U.S. government but rather they will be added to federal contracts, a White House official said.

The federal government would work with the contractor to help them reach compliance, but if not, the contract could be terminated by the government, the official said.

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