Southwest Airlines says staff must be vaccinated against Covid by Dec. 8 under federal rules

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A traveler wearing a protective mask speaks with an attendant at the Southwest Airlines check-in area at Oakland International Airport in Oakland, California, on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Southwest Airlines said Monday that its 56,000-person workforce must be vaccinated against Covid-19 by Dec. 8 to continue working at the airline because of new federal rules, joining other carriers who made similar announcements last week.

The Biden administration last month said staff of federal contractors must be vaccinated, unless they are granted a religious or medical exemption.

Southwest and other major airlines are federal contractors since they fly government employees, cargo and provide other service, such as flights for Afghanistan evacuees in August. The new federal guidelines for government contractors are stricter than those in President Joe Biden’s plan to increase vaccinations among companies with more than 100 employees by requiring inoculations or regular Covid testing.

“Southwest Airlines is a federal contractor and we have no viable choice but to comply with the U.S. government mandate for Employees to be vaccinated, and — like other airlines — we’re taking steps to comply,” Gary Kelly, CEO of the Dallas-based airline, told staff on Monday.

Pilots unions at American and Southwest have strongly opposed vaccine mandates, saying aviators are concerned about side effects from vaccines

Kelly said the decision that the provisions for medical and religious exemptions are “are very limited.”

Alaska Airlines, JetBlue Airways and American Airlines last week told their employees that they must be vaccinated since those airlines are government contractors as well.

United Airlines mandated vaccines for its 67,000-person U.S. staff in August and more than 96% had uploaded proof of inoculation after the deadline a week ago.

Delta Air Lines, also a federal contractor, said it is examining the federal rules and hasn’t mandated vaccines for its staff of about 80,000 people.

The Atlanta-based airline next month plans to impose a $200 monthly surcharge on employee health care premiums for unvaccinated workers.

“Delta’s own approach to encourage a high rate of employee vaccinations continues to work, with an 84% workforce vaccination rate and climbing daily,” the airline said in a statement.

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