On or around Oct. 13, 2021, a message began to be shared on Facebook as a meme that read: "And just like that, Southwest Airlines announce they will no longer terminate employees over the [federal COVID-19 vaccine] mandate."
One post read: "AND JUST LIKE THAT... SOUTHWEST AIRLINES ANNOUNCE THEY WILL NO LONGER TERMINATE EMPLOYEES OVER THE MANDATE....... HOLD THE LINE AMERICA.... CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS ARE WINNING AGAINST THIS SOCIALIST Takeover!"
Another Facebook user asked: "What changed their mind?"
Others claimed Southwest Airlines reversed course for financial reasons. Some even claimed they had been victorious in supposedly changing the company's mind on terminating employees who do not adhere to the mandate.
However, the facts tell a different story.
Not too long before these memes began to make the rounds, Southwest Airlines employees were notified about the Biden administration's federal mandate that requires vaccinations for COVID-19 by an upcoming deadline. The mandate applies to federal workers and employees of certain federal contractors, including airlines that provide services to the federal government.
According to The Associated Press, the reason why the federal vaccine mandate applies to Southwest Airlines is that it flies the military in emergency circumstances and also carries mail for the U.S. Postal Service. Employees who do not wish to be vaccinated "can [still] seek approval to skip the shots due to medical or religious reasons."
On Oct. 4, Southwest Airlines Chairman and CEO Gary Kelly addressed the mandate in a statement: "I encourage all Southwest Employees to meet the federal directive, as quickly as possible, since we value every individual and want to ensure job security for all."
Eight days later on Oct. 12, Kelly told ABC News (see video) that the company would not terminate employees over the mandate. "We're not going to fire any employees over this. We're urging all of our employees to get vaccinated. If they can't get vaccinated, we're urging them to seek an accommodation." The word "accommodation" referred to the act of obtaining a medical or religious exemption. He also told CNBC that he wasn't in favor of the vaccine mandate, but that the company had to comply with the federal order from the Biden administration.
The inclusion of "no longer" in the above Facebook meme implied that the company itself had previously announced it would, in fact, terminate its workers if they did not get the vaccine. However, we found no evidence of Southwest Airlines ever claiming it would do this. (This may have been confused with reporting about United Airlines, which did previously mention employee termination in regards to a company-issued mandate.)
The Washington Post reported on how terminations of non-compliant employees in affected companies, in a general sense, might work. It said that it's a "complex, potentially messy process that will likely stretch deep into winter if not longer, given the government’s sprawling size and presence in every state."
Reuters also provided an explainer, reporting that there could be hefty fines for companies that don't comply:
Federal workers who refuse to get vaccinated will first receive counseling and ultimately face termination if they persist in refusing.
Companies that don't comply with the rule could be fined nearly $14,000 per violation.
It is not immediately clear how the CMS (Department of Health and Human Services' Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) can enforce compliance, but the agency has the authority to terminate agreements with entities that violate its regulations.
We reached out to Southwest Airlines to ask about the meme. In response, a company spokesperson sent the following statement:
As our Chairman and CEO Gary Kelly emphasized, as a contractor with the federal government, we continue to work with the federal government to comply with the mandate for our work force to be vaccinated or provide an approved accommodation by Dec. 8.
There is much work to do regarding this requirement and its compliance. We don’t want any Employee to lose their job over a vaccination issue. We have every intention of working with our Employees as best we can. But for us to do this, we need our Employees to either let us know if they are vaccinated or make the request for accommodation.
There is a November 24 deadline, and as that approaches, we may find we need more time to process all of our Employee’s requests for exemptions, and we certainly don’t want to impact our operation during the busy holiday season, nor our Employees’ livelihoods. At the end of the day, we want our People to be equipped to serve our Customers and provide a safe and hospitable environment.
This statement appears to leave open the possibility that some Southwest Airlines employees might still be terminated in the future if they don't get vaccinated or obtain an exemption, despite what Kelly said about not firing anyone.
We responded to Southwest Airlines and asked if this was the case. We will update this story if the company responds to our inquiry.