White House press secretary Jen Psaki speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, Aug. 23, 2021.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, Aug. 23, 2021. Susan Walsh / AP

More Stringent Vaccine Mandates On the Way for Some Feds

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that with full FDA authorization of the Pfizer vaccine, more agencies could announce more stringent mandates than President Biden’s governmentwide policy.

The Biden administration on Monday indicated that some federal employees could see more stringent vaccine mandates in the coming days, following the Food and Drug Administration’s full approval of the Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19.

During the White House’s daily press briefing, Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that some agencies may roll out requirements that subsets of the federal workforce must be vaccinated, similar to those announced for health care workers at the Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services departments. Across the federal government, agencies are working to implement President Biden’s requirement that all federal workers and contractors either attest that they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to a stringent regimen of wearing masks and being tested regularly for the virus.

“I expect there will be more . . . we certainly expect there will be more mandates for factions of federal employees,” Psaki said. “I think you’re looking more at agency-to-agency, or different factions of the government at this point, but expect there will be more on that front.”

In the meantime, federal employee unions have already begun engaging with management at various agencies to negotiate how the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate will be implemented. Matt Biggs, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Employees, said that although his union publicly announced its support for the vaccine mandate, it is working to ensure workers’ rights are protected, regardless of whether they elect to be vaccinated.

“Our locals are negotiating the impact and implementation of the policy locally, because we also want to make sure that we understand that some people are not going to get vaccinated or will refuse to, and although we’re unsure why that is, they have their reasons,” Biggs said. “People who don’t get vaccinated, we believe, shouldn’t be losing their jobs, although they may need to be placed in a slightly different assignment depending on what they’re doing . . . We want to make sure that people are as minimally impacted as possible—they’ll have to adhere to testing and wearing masks and those kind of things, which we think are common sense, but we don’t think they should be losing their jobs or anything.”

Biggs speculated that other unions have been more reserved in their public comments on the vaccine mandate because of the need to preserve organized labor’s role in negotiating how such a rule will be implemented to preserve workers’ rights.

“I think what’s being lost out in the general public maybe is that people don’t understand that unions are here to ensure that the policy is put in place correctly,” he said. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all thing, and that’s why it’s bargained locally [at each individual agency]. That is a good and correct process: you implement the policy, and then you bargain the impact and implementation. It may change based on that negotiation, but what is negotiated into the end product is usually the right process. It’s good for the taxpayer and the employees, both vaccinated and unvaccinated.”

Jefferson Friday, general counsel at the National Federation of Federal Employees, said that right now, most of his unions’ locals have been in something of a holding pattern, as agencies try to figure out how they’re going to roll out—and pay for—regular testing of unvaccinated employees. He said NFFE’s main goals in negotiation will be to make sure that the policy is clear and fair to employees, and that there will be plenty of notice before employees will expected to comply with the new rules.

“The main thing we’d negotiate is how many times is [testing] going to be per week, what are the mechanics of that going to be, and how will agencies deal with a situation where somebody doesn’t get tested, because it could be they just missed a test, not necessarily a refusal to get tested,” Friday said. “We want to make sure people are aware of the rules and that they have an opportunity to comply, and then make sure agencies engage in progressive discipline if they’re going to discipline anybody.”

Friday noted that a lot of his union’s locals, particularly those in the Defense Department, are in rural areas, where people have shown more vaccine hesitancy than other regions, which provides its own complications.

“Very carefully,” Friday said with a laugh, when asked about how he juggles anti-vaccine members with unions’ traditional focus on negotiating safe working conditions. “We’re focused on protecting our members through negotiations, so that’s where we’re focusing the conversation.”

NFFE also represents around 10,000 employees at the VA, which has announced that its frontline health care workforce must receive the vaccine or risk being disciplined, although there will be medical and religious exemptions in place. Although those discussions remain early in the negotiations process, Friday said they have some experience on the matter, thanks to the VA’s existing mandate that its employees be vaccinated against the flu each year.

“They were never able to get over two-thirds of VA workers to be vaccinated for the flu, but COVID’s kind of a different deal, with a much higher percentage of VA folks already vaccinated against COVID,” Friday said. “We’ll still have people with religious and medical exemptions, but with the flu it was a long process with something like three warnings before anyone would get disciplined . . . and I’ve never heard of any of our guys getting disciplined for not getting a flu shot. So our goal is to have a similar thing in place, although it could be more serious since COVID is more serious than the flu, but you’re also starting from a point where a much higher percentage of people are already vaccinated.”