President Biden holds up a mask July 29 as he announces that millions of federal workers must show proof they've received a coronavirus vaccine or submit to regular testing and stringent social distancing, masking and travel restrictions.

President Biden holds up a mask July 29 as he announces that millions of federal workers must show proof they've received a coronavirus vaccine or submit to regular testing and stringent social distancing, masking and travel restrictions. Susan Walsh / AP

Biden Announces Vaccine-or-Masks Mandate for Feds, Some Contractors

Federal employees will have a choice: get vaccinated, or wear masks when indoors at federal facilities and subject themselves to regular COVID-19 testing.

President Biden on Thursday announced a new safety mandate for federal employees and contractors who work on-site at government facilities: “attest” that you have been vaccinated, or agree to wear masks at all times and submit to regular screening for COVID-19.

The new directive comes just days after the president indicated some form of vaccine mandate for federal workers was under consideration, and after the Office of Management and Budget reinstituted a mask mandate for both vaccinated and unvaccinated employees and visitors to federal facilities in regions experiencing “substantial or high” transmission of COVID-19, amid spiking case numbers due in part to the more virulent delta variant of the virus.

Under the new policy, federal employees and onsite contractors must “attest” to their vaccination status by signing a form. Those who do not confirm that they are fully vaccinated will be required to wear a mask at work, physically distance from other employees and visitors, and agree to weekly or twice-weekly screenings for COVID-19. They also will be subject to restrictions on official travel.

Visitors to federal facilities must also sign attestation forms confirming their vaccination status, and if they are not vaccinated, they must wear masks and bring proof that they have received a negative COVID-19 test within the last three days.

Biden also directed the Defense Department to look into adding the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of vaccinations that military service members are required to get. And he directed the administration to “take steps” to apply similar standards to all federal contractors, not just those who work at federal facilities.

According to guidance from the White House Safe Federal Workplace Task Force, each individual agency will be responsible for establishing a program to test federal employees and contractors who are not fully vaccinated or decline to disclose their vaccination status.

“What I’m trying to do is keep people safe,” Biden said. “So if, in fact, you’re unvaccinated, you present a problem to yourself, to your family and to those with whom you work because, as I pointed out, I’ve been asked, ‘Why would people already vaccinated get [COVID-19]?’ Well, 2% to 3%, according to the last study that was done, can still get COVID. They don’t get very sick and they don’t get hospitalized and it’s not serious, but they can catch it. So the concern is they may be able to pass it on. The important thing is if people are vaccinated, the transmission rate drops through the floor, and that’s all we’re trying to do.”

The decision has drawn a mixed response from federal employee groups. Some groups, like the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, blasted the directive as a “civil rights violation.”

“FLEOA fully supports individuals who voluntarily choose to be vaccinated, agree that it is safe and the most effective means of combatting the pandemic, and encourage our members to be vaccinated,” said FLEOA President Larry Cosme in a statement. “However, forcing people to undertake a medical procedure is not the American way and is a clear civil rights violation no matter how proponents may seek to justify it.”

The two largest federal employee unions, the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union, have adopted a wait and see approach, saying they have questions about how the administration will implement the directive.

“We expect that the particulars of any changes to working conditions, including those related to COVID-19 vaccines and associated protocols, be properly negotiated with our bargaining units prior to implementation,” said AFGE National President Everett Kelley. “[It] is our understanding that under President Biden’s proposal, the vast majority of federal employees would not have to be vaccinated as a condition of employment, but that those who choose not to receive the vaccine may face certain restrictions. While we await specific proposals and anticipate the negotiation process, we encourage all of our members whoa re able to take advantage of the opportunity to get vaccinated and help our nation put an end to this deadly pandemic.”

“We are seeking details on many aspects of this plan,” said NTEU National President Tony Reardon. “NTEU will work with the Office of Personnel Management and agency leadership to get our questions answered and ensure that employees have all the information they need as the policy is implemented. We will work to ensure employees are treated fairly and this protocol does not create an undue burden on them.”

But other unions, like the International Federation of Professional and Technical Employees, endorsed the plan unreservedly.

“Let me tell you, one of the number one issues that organized labor and the union believe is that workers should have a safe workplace,” said IFPTE President Paul Shearon. “No worker should go to work and expect to be getting exposed to pandemics and other such things. So with that being the initial premise from where we come from—that safety is first and foremost—we’ve had vaccines out for a significant period of time now, and millions upon millions who have been vaccinated, and we have 600,000 people who are dead, and now a variant of the virus that is magnitudes more contagious than the original virus, it only makes common sense to create a safe work environment for all of the workers.”

Michael Arendt, a steward at IFPTE Local 561 in Mobile, Ala., and an employee of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said requiring employees to be vaccinated is necessary to ensure continuity of operations, particularly in rural areas.

“We have 12-hour shifts of essential duty—we have to be there no matter what, whether there’s a national disaster or troops coming over the border—you have to be there at that critical infrastructure or you’re AWOL,” Arendt said. “If they can clamp down on that, they can make sure you’ve had the opportunity to get the shot somewhere or some place . . . And if this variant stays like it is or gets worse, or if there are other ones, and people who get sick can’t come in, that makes it harder, especially in rural areas. I have five people at the dam that I’m at, so if three of them come down with it, then we’re in trouble.”