Biden Mandates COVID-19 Vaccinations for All Feds
The executive order, removes exceptions that allowed federal workers and contractors to remain unvaccinated if they agreed to regular testing for COVID-19.
President Biden on Thursday signed an executive order mandating that all federal employees and contractors get vaccinated against COVID-19, with no exceptions for those who agree to regular testing for the virus, according to a source familiar with the plans.
Biden announced the order during a speech Thursday evening on new efforts the administration is taking to fight the virus’ Delta variant, including calling for a global summit at the United Nations on boosting the global vaccine supply.
The executive order marks a shift in the Biden administration’s policy on vaccinations, which until this point has offered an alternative to those who wish to remain unvaccinated by allowing those individuals to wear masks while on federal property as long as they submit to regular screening for COVID-19. That policy has proven complicated to roll out, however, as each individual agency is responsible for developing the necessary testing policies and capability.
Some public facing agencies that provide health care, including portions of the Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services departments, have already mandated that their frontline health workers must be vaccinated, with exceptions only for those who require religious or health-based accommodations. And the Defense Department announced it would require all service members be vaccinated following the Food and Drug Administration’s full approval of the Pfizer vaccine last month.
The order itself is light on details, instead directing the White House Safer Federal Workforce Taskforce with issuing new guidance on how agencies should implement the new vaccine mandate within seven days.
But during a briefing with reporters, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said federal workers will have about 75 days to get fully vaccinated or apply for a religious or medical exemption before they will be deemed to be out of compliance with the order. Agencies who have already implemented more stringent vaccine mandates will continue along their implementation like, at the Veterans Health Administration, where employees have until early October to be fully vaccinated.
"If a federal employee fails to comply, then they will go through the standard HR process, which includes counseling, and face progressive disciplinary action," Psaki said. "Each agency will work with employees to make sure that they understand the benefits of vaccination and how the vaccines are free, easy and widely accessible."
Psaki said agencies will have the ability to decide whether to stick with the already-authorized attestation process, by which federal employees voluntarily state whether they have been vaccinated, or to require employees to provide proof of their vaccination status. She also confirmed that federal employees could be fired if they refuse to get vaccinated and do not qualify for medical or religious exemptions.
"There are limited exceptions, but the expectation is that if you want to work in the federal government or be a contractor, you need to be vaccinated," she said. "[Hopefully] it doesn't come to [termination], but our role is of course to convey to federal employees the safety, effectiveness, and the availability of vaccines."
Although some federal employee unions have embraced vaccine mandates, most employee groups have had a more muted response, in part because they have been focused on negotiating how such mandates will be implemented to ensure legal protections for employees are preserved.
Matt Biggs, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Employees, which lauded the Biden administration's previous vaccine mandate initiatives, remained broadly supportive of the new plan to require all federal workers be vaccinated.
“As a labor union that is committed to advocating and working toward a safe and healthy workplace for all of our members, IFPTE continues to support vaccine mandates, with the caveat that the impact and implementation of the mandate policy, or any other policy impacting workers, be bargained with labor," Biggs said. "At the end of the day the data is very clear and indisputable—the vaccines are safe, and effective at saving lives, and as a union we encourage everyone to get vaccinated. We commend President Biden and his administration for prioritizing the safety and health of federal workers.”
And Tony Reardon, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said his union will monitor the mandate's implementation to ensure employees are granted leave to get vaccinated and that their rights are protected, particularly those who require religious or medical accommodation.
"NTEU members, like American society at large, will have differing reactions to the new policy," he said. "Some employees will disagree. Others will welcome the additional security that comes with knowing that all of their coworkers are vaccinated. Either way, the law is clear that employers, including the federal government, may implement a vaccination requirement for employees."
American Federation of Government Employees National President Everett Kelley restated his union's general support for efforts to encourage employees to get vaccinated, but stressed that policies like vaccine mandates should be negotiated with unions prior to implementation.
“Since the vaccines first became widely available, we have strongly encouraged all our members to take one of the several safe, effective vaccines against COVID-19," Kelley said. "The data are clear. Getting vaccinated isn’t just the best way for us to end this pandemic, it is the best way for us to protect each other in the workplace. Likewise, since President Biden made his first major announcement about changing COVID-19 protocols for the federal workforce in response to the surging Delta variant, we have said that changes like this should be negotiated with our bargaining units where appropriate. Put simply, workers deserve a voice in their working conditions."
Senior Executives Association President Bob Corsi said his organization "fully supports" the new vaccine mandate, although he stressed that agencies need the "resources and latitude" needed to protect employees from COVID-19. The Professional Managers Association also lauded the new mandate, citing difficulties implementing a regular testing regime at agencies.
"Getting vaccinated is the surest way to protect the health and welfare of oneself and others, to include colleagues in the workplace," he said. "Vaccinations have been deemed to be effective in mitigating COVID-19 related hospitalizations and deaths. By mandating their use, the federal government is leading, by setting a strong example for other organizations and industry to model.”
"PMA appreciates the executive order mandating all employees receive a COVID-19 vaccine as clear, consistent guidance to all employees," said PMA president Chad Hooper. "This is a welcome departure from the administration’s still unrealized plan to test unvaccinated employees. The testing plan exacerbated resource constraints, lacked effective coordination between central management offices and agency leaders, and exposed managers to potential liability. We are pleased that the vaccine mandate is at least clear and realistic for agencies implementing the order."
But the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association announced that it opposes the order outright.
"The COVID-19 pandemic is a rapidly evolving and emotional trying situation," said president Larry Cosme. "In the face of so many uncertainties, our federal government should trust its employees to make their own medical decision under consultation with their doctor, not mandate by their employer. Vaccination should be promoted through education and encouragement – not coercion.”
This story will be updated throughout the day.