DALLAS -- When Southwest Airlines canceled more than 2,000 flights over the weekend, citing bad weather and air traffic control issues, unsupported claims blaming vaccine mandates began taking off.
On Monday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order barring private companies or any other entity from requiring vaccines.
Conservative politicians and pundits, including Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, alleged the flight disruptions resulted from pilots and air traffic controllers walking off their jobs or calling in sick to protest federal vaccination requirements.
The airline, its pilots’ union and the Federal Aviation Administration denied that.
“The weekend challenges were not a result of Southwest employee demonstrations,” Southwest spokesman Chris Mainz said Monday.
Still, Twitter posts claiming airline employees were “standing up to medical tyranny” and participating in a “mass sickout” amassed thousands of shares. Vague and anonymous messages on social media speculated that Southwest was hiding the real reason for its disruptions. And anti-vaccine rallying cries such as #DoNotComply, #NoVaccineMandate and #HoldTheLine were among the 10 most popular hashtags tweeted in connection to Southwest over the weekend, according to a report from media intelligence firm Zignal Labs.
Asked on Tuesday to respond to claims that vaccine mandates have reduced the workforce and contributed to supply-chain disruptions, White House press secretary Jen Psaki took a jab at Cruz — sarcastically labeling him a “world-renowned business, travel and health expert” — before defending Biden’s policy.
“I know there was a little hubbub over the course of the last few days about Southwest Airlines,” Psaki said. “We now know that some of those claims were absolutely false and actually the issues were completely unrelated to vaccine mandates.”
Biden’s order, which is still being finalized, would require employers with 100 or more workers to get vaccinated or tested weekly for COVID-19. Airlines, however, are government contractors because they perform work such as emergency flights for the Defense Department that carried Afghanistan refugees to the U.S. in August. That makes airlines subject to a tougher standard under the Biden order: mandatory vaccinations with no opt-out for getting tested.
Following the lead of other airlines, Southwest told employees last week that it would require them to be vaccinated by Dec. 8.
While some staff at airlines and other large companies have spoken out against vaccine requirements, comments on social media have created an exaggerated sense of the dissent, according to Moran, the misinformation scholar at the University of Washington.
“In reality, it’s quite a small number of people who are protesting employment-based mandates for the vaccine,” Moran said. “People are more vulnerable to misinformation in times of crisis, and these labor shortages and supply-chain delays either create a real sense of crisis or are manipulated by misinformation spreaders to make it appear like we are heading towards crisis.”
Boeing threatens firings
The Boeing Co. has told employees they must be vaccinated against COVID-19 or possibly be fired.
The Seattle Times reports the deadline for workers at the aerospace giant is Dec. 8.
“Compliance with these requirements is a condition of employment,” states a Boeing internal presentation from Tuesday viewed by the newspaper. “Employees who are unable to meet these requirements ... may be released from the company.”
Employees can request exemptions “due to a disability or sincerely held religious belief.” Any employee granted such an exemption will have to “undergo frequent testing for COVID-19” and be ready to “present a negative test result upon request.”
The policy will apply to roughly 125,000 U.S.-based employees company-wide, with about 57,000 of those in Washington state.
Jon Holden, president of International Association of Machinists (IAM) District 751, in his message to members in the October issue of the union paper, wrote that “the reality is our members are polarized on this issue.”
“It is our responsibility to defend and advocate for all our members,” Holden added. And though he noted that he and his family are vaccinated, the union must also defend “those who can’t or won’t accept the vaccine.”
The white-collar union, the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), said in a statement Tuesday it is engaging with Boeing “to ensure implementation gives proper consideration to members’ concerns.”
Boeing may face more resistance to the new policy in Republican-controlled states. It has more than 5,000 employees in Texas. It has about 32,000 more at facilities in Alabama, Arizona, Missouri, Oklahoma and South Carolina.