VA Secretary Denis McDonough testifies on Capitol Hill in July. McDonough said Wednesday that VA will be working in the coming weeks to reach those who are unvaccinated or have to make their attestation.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough testifies on Capitol Hill in July. McDonough said Wednesday that VA will be working in the coming weeks to reach those who are unvaccinated or have to make their attestation. Amanda Andrade-Rhoades / AP

As VA Vaccination Rate Ticks Up, the Department Is 'Making Preparations' to Fire the Non-Compliant

VA now has a few weeks to determine the vaccination status for more than 100,000 employees.

The Veterans Affairs Department has seen a 9% uptick in vaccinated personnel since it implemented a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for most employees, but a significant number of workers have not been inoculated and the agency is preparing to fire them. 

Of the 380,000 employees for whom VA had already required vaccinations prior to President Biden’s governmentwide requirement, 82% have submitted their attestation form to document their status. Within that subgroup, 88% of employees said they are fully or partially vaccinated. The remaining 12% either said they were not vaccinated or requested a religious or health exemption. VA Secretary Denis McDonough said on Wednesday the department did not yet have clarity on that breakdown. 

That leaves more than 100,000 employees within the Veterans Health Administration who are either unvaccinated or have yet to tell VA their status. The VHA workers subject to an initial mandate have until late Oct. 8 to get vaccinated or receive an exemption. Other personnel—the non-VHA staff who are newly facing a requirement under Biden’s federal workforce-wide order—face a Nov. 22 deadline. 

McDonough said VA will be working in the coming weeks to reach those who are unvaccinated or have to make their attestation, including by collaborating with “influencers” and employee unions. Those still not vaccinated or exempted by the time their deadline rolls around will face “progressive discipline,” he said, which he said he hoped would serve as a final push to get the shots.  

“The goal of that discipline is to get people vaccinated,” the secretary said. “The last thing we want to do is have to fire trained personnel.”

Still, McDonough made clear VA is “making preparations” to carry out firings as necessary. He noted the department implemented a requirement for flu shots last year and will lean on that experience to discipline workers who fail to comply. The exact nature and timing of when punishments go into effect will be decided by supervisors at the local level. 

“If at the end of progressive discipline they have chosen not to get vaccinated or an exemption, they will be terminated from federal service,” McDonough said, adding the department is taking steps to ensure it maintains adequate staff to care for veterans. 

Many VA employees who spoke to Government Executive since the initial mandate went into effect have expressed apprehension, with some planning to seek exemptions or quit. Those workers said they begrudged VA for taking away their choice. Employees added that tension has reached a boiling point between the vaccinated and unvaccinated, with some staff who already received their shots telling those who had not they should lose their jobs.

At the Veterans Benefits Administration, now covered under Biden’s mandate, about 85% of employees have submitted their attestations. Of those, about 80% are fully vaccinated or have begun the process. At the National Cemetery Administration, roughly 90% submitted their forms but only about 62% of employees are fully or partially vaccinated. 

The Biden administration has said that any federal employees who are found to have lied on their attestation form could face firing and imprisonment

McDonough noted VA is experiencing a “sharp slope up” in employees who are unable to work for issues related to COVID-19. In some areas, he said, facilities are curtailing procedures due to staffing shortages. August was one of the deadliest months for the VA workforce since the pandemic began. The secretary thanked his workforce for stepping up not just throughout the pandemic, but also volunteering for deployments in response to recent natural disasters. 

“VA employees have been on the ground for every emergency that’s happened over the last couple of months helping vets where they need most, when they need it most,” McDonough said. “I know this is tiring for our VA colleagues, I know how demanding it is, and I know how hard you’ve been working for 18 months in the pandemic.”

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