Southwest Airlines seeks to stop pilots' attempt to halt COVID-19 vaccine mandate

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

Under pressure from the Biden administration, Southwest Airlines imposed a deadline of November 24 for employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association is seeking a temporary halt to the airline carrying out the mandate.

Biden mandated that any company with 100 employees or more must require their employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19. The order includes federal contractors. Airlines receive millions of dollars worth of government contracts which are in jeopardy if their employees don’t comply with the mandate. Like many airlines, Southwest Airlines took the approach that other employers have taken – they set a date on the calendar as a deadline for showing proof of vaccination.

The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association is involved in a lawsuit over alleged labor law violations and has requested a temporary halt to enforcing the mandate until the first lawsuit is resolved. The pilots accuse Southwest of illegally changing work rules during the pandemic without negotiating with pilots. Southwest Airlines has asked a federal court to reject the request from the union. The airline argues that the halt to the deadline puts the airline, its employees, and customers at risk.

“The injunction that SWAPA seeks is extraordinary,” Southwest said. If granted, it would prevent the airline from meeting Biden’s order and force the roll back of policies adopted to implement U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to help stop the spread of coronavirus in the workplace.

The possible cancellation of Southwest’s government contracts would cause “substantial harm” to the company and all of its employees, including the pilots represented by group, the airline said.

The airline is a business and is understandably protecting its bottom line. Biden put businesses in this position by threatening to cancel government contracts if they don’t comply with his mandate. The vaccine mandate is one of those sweeping orders that Biden announced and then hasn’t followed through with, though. The actual rules haven’t been provided to businesses and it hasn’t been sorted out with OSHA. For the time being, the details are left unfinished. In the meantime, the union is involved in a lawsuit filed in Dallas on August 30 which claims unilateral changes were made that violated terms of the Railway Labor Act (RLA), which oversees airline and union relations. The union objects to COVID quarantine rules for pilots. It has altered work conditions, rules, and rates of pay without negotiations with union management. This alters the “status quo” provision of the RLA, as it altered their existing contract.

The federal court doesn’t have jurisdiction in the case because it involves a “minor dispute” under the RLA that can be resolved through binding arbitration instead of a negotiation process for larger disagreements that can take years to resolve, the carrier said. The union also can’t show irreparable harm because it is in talks with the airline to establish a process for pilots to request religious or medical exemptions from the mandate.

Pilots are at a unique risk because adverse reactions to a vaccine could affect their ability to pass periodic medical examinations required to maintain their license. The union wants to negotiate, among other things, how such instances would be covered by long-term disability policies. Pilots also are required by the Federal Aviation Administration to not work for 48 hours after receiving vaccinations.

Employee disputes against Southwest are rare. The pilot union represents 9,000 pilots with Southwest. The union’s request for a temporary restraining order is set for a court hearing on October 22.

You may remember earlier this month when protests against vaccine mandates were said to cause massive flight cancellations by Southwest. Some reports blamed various reasons for the disruption in the airline’s business. The pilots are pointing fingers elsewhere, deflecting any criticism from them. If a walk-out occurred by the pilots, it would be in violation of the RLA and that’s a big no-no. One pilot wrote an op-ed saying don’t blame them, they were stranded, too.

To have a walkout, you must have a significant increase in pilots failing to show up to work. But the reality is, that data doesn’t exist. There has not been a dramatic spike in pilot sick call rates anywhere in the month of October. What actually happened was Southwest Airlines pilots and flight attendants were stranded away from their homes and families, right alongside our passengers. Much like our passengers, many of our crews were unable to find hotel rooms. That only exacerbated Southwest’s problems as numerous pilots were not legally permitted to fly due to a lack of rest before getting behind the controls of an airliner.

The pilot explains that it’s a scheduling problem and a shortage of pilots scheduled to work. The increased demand for air travel as travelers feel more comfortable flying has created a burden on the system which looks to have been caught unprepared. Personnel has not been brought back to work quickly enough to keep up with staffing demands. The message is to blame the pandemic, not the pilots.

Record rates of Southwest pilots working overtime to help complete the schedule in October.

►High rates of Southwest pilots working overtime – both voluntary and involuntary – throughout summer 2021.

►A network disruption on Friday, Oct. 8, followed by a dense flight schedule Saturday, Oct. 9, with an increase of pilot flying time by 8.2% from the previous weekend left no margin for recovery.

►The most Southwest flights scheduled on Sunday, Oct. 10, since March 2020, while having approximately 850 fewer pilots available due to pandemic staffing reductions and retirements.

Perhaps airlines should look to Delta Airlines as an example of a smoother path to getting employees vaccinated. Delta is not enforcing the federal mandate and yet is finding a high level of cooperation from its employees. CEO Ed Bastian reports that 90% of Delta employees are vaccinated and he expects another 5% to comply within the next month without a mandate.

“The reason the mandate was put in by president, I believe, was because they wanted to make sure companies had a plan to get their employees vaccinated,” he said. “A month before the president came out with the mandate, we had already announced our plan to get all of our people vaccinated. And the good news is the plan is working.”

Bastian acknowledged that there will need to be religious and medical accommodations made for those who wish to remain unvaccinated while avoiding having to threaten employment status.

“By the time we’re done, we’ll be pretty close to fully vaccinated as a company without going through all the divisiveness of a mandate,” he said. “We’re proving that you can work collaboratively with your people, trusting your people to make the right decisions, respecting their decisions and not forcing them over the loss of their jobs.”

Bastian points to Delta’s low cancellation rate and overall operational success as the demand from the flying public increases. He said the company has recorded 116 “perfect days” – no cancellations – which is in line with pre-pandemic numbers in 2019. Looks like a lighter, more respectful approach in working with employees to accomplish a goal is paying off for Delta.