People participate in a rally and march against COVID-19 vaccine mandates on September 13 in New York City.

People participate in a rally and march against COVID-19 vaccine mandates on September 13 in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Meet the Federal Employees Who Will Refuse the COVID-19 Vaccine

"There is no way I'm getting that shot:" some employees will leave their jobs if they cannot get around Biden's vaccine mandate.

Sophia Smith has worked at NASA for 37 years, but is prepared to leave in the coming weeks. 

She would not be leaving because she is exhausted after a long career at the space agency, or because she wants to travel or spend more time with family. Instead she would depart because she has decided she will not get the COVID-19 vaccine. Smith is seeking a religious exemption to President Biden’s mandate that all federal workers receive the immunization, but will step away next month if her request is denied. 

“I love what I’m doing,” Smith said. “I love working at NASA.” Her opposition to the vaccine, however, is paramount. “If it gets denied, I told my manager I’ll retire,” she said. 

Smith was one of the federal workers Government Executive spoke to at more than a half-dozen agencies in recent weeks who objected to the mandate and are planning to refuse the vaccine, come what may. The Biden administration has made clear that any unvaccinated employee who does not qualify for a narrow medical or religious exemption will face discipline, eventually leading to firing. Smith, a software engineer for the Space Station Program Office based out of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, is herself leading a group of NASA employees—both contractors and federal civil servants—who oppose Biden’s mandate and are seeking ways to push back on it. The group has 96 members and is quickly expanding.  

“I’m starting to turn people away,” said Smith, who is using her time on nights and weekends to organize rallies and provide advice on how to seek exemptions, including key phrases to use. “I can’t keep up,” she said. 

Smith’s group held its first rally at the Johnson Space Center last week, with more than 60 attendees. More are planned in the coming weeks. 

While there is widespread scientific consensus on the safety and efficacy of all approved COVID-19 vaccines, and significant side effects or bad reactions are exceptionally rare, several federal employees said they are fearful of adverse medical impacts. One civilian employee for the Defense Department in Ohio said he will seek an exemption because there is a history of heart disease in his family and he has previously had bad reactions to flu shots. The Biden administration has advised agencies to follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in accepting medical exemption requests—which do not appear to include those mentioned by the Ohio-based Defense worker—and will require a signature and explanation from a medical provider.

Echoing a familiar phrase from federal employees who will not get inoculated, the employee said he is not “anti-vaccine” nor is he a supporter of former President Trump. He noted that he is working from home and should not be subject to a mandate. 

“I don’t see why I should get vaccinated,” he said. Like Smith, he will seek retirement if his request is denied. 

The Biden administration’s guidance for approving exemptions is broad and leaves significant discretion to individual agencies and managers. It requires agencies to consider not just the "basis for the claim," but also employees' job responsibilities, impact on agency mission and risk for transmitting COVID-19. 

The Navy said in a form sent out to employees that was reviewed by Government Executive that it would provide a religious accommodation if the request was “reasonable and does not create an undue hardship for the [Department of Navy].” It clarified that “philosophical, political, scientific, or sociological objections to immunization do not justify granting an exception or religious accommodation.” Navy civilians were asked to complete a form that would be reviewed by their supervisor, equal employment opportunity office, the Office of General Counsel, human resources and other “appropriate personnel” to determine eligibility and potentially discuss an “effective” accommodation. 

Employees were asked to explain why they were requesting a religious exemption, the religious principles guiding them, how long they held their beliefs, whether they object to all vaccines or if they had ever received one, and any documents that might help bolster their case. They were cautioned that any misrepresentation on the form may lead to firing or other legal consequences. 

One Navy civilian who is seeking a religious exemption, a mechanical engineer in Newport, Rhode Island, said he found the form “invasive” and an attempt to trick him into saying something the agency could use against him. A recent email to all Naval Sea Systems Command staff outlining the details of the vaccine mandate said, “Frankly, if you are not vaccinated, you will not work for the U.S. Navy.” The engineer said that language had a chilling effect and suggested all or most exemption requests would be denied. 

Smith’s decision to potentially leave NASA was perhaps easier than it would be for most in her shoes, as she was already planning to retire next year even before the mandate came out. She noted, however, that many of her colleagues are also planning to leave federal service. Some of those in her group are the breadwinners for their families, but are “ready to take a stand” and have “faith that God will provide,” she said.  

“I have more and more people telling me they’re leaving, quitting, retiring,” Smith said. On her form, Smith highlighted that she never smoked, has no tattoos and generally believes her body is “God’s temple, so I do not want this vaccine.”

Karen Northon, a NASA spokeswoman, said the agency is still reviewing exemption requests and has not yet made any decisions. 

"As the agency reviews and processes the requests, it is following all guidelines provided by the administration, as well as existing policies and regulations governing reasonable accommodations," Northon said.  

Other employees are not going to bother seeking an exemption. Kristi Brown has worked for the Agriculture Department’s Farm Service Agency for 23 years, but has decided to apply for medical retirement. While only certain employees facing disabilities that prevent them from doing their jobs are eligible for that retirement, Brown said she will leave federal service either way. Brown has a rare congenital cardiac condition, but does not think she would qualify for a vaccine exemption, especially after hearing that anyone who has so far applied has been rejected.

“I loved my job,” Brown said, noting that she remained in it even after receiving a terminal diagnosis in 2019. She added, however, “There is no way I am getting that shot.” 

Those willing to leave their jobs to avoid getting a safe and effective vaccine represent just a small fraction of the more than 2 million federal civil servants. Few agencies have publicized their data—even after repeated requests by Government Executive—but the agencies that have done so have shown significant upticks in vaccination rates since the mandate went into effect. The Veterans Affairs Department, the first federal agency to implement a COVID-19 vaccine mandate, has seen its vaccinated workforce increase steadily since the shots became obligatory. 

One VA nurse in Las Vegas who just received her second dose last week said she made the choice to get vaccinated rather than risk losing her job. She said she did so with “mixed emotions,” as she “feels controlled” by her employer after getting immunized. Her husband has still resisted getting the shots, and some of her colleagues are doing the same. One doctor she works with has refused and has been approved for a religious exemption. A health technician colleague is “terrified” to get the vaccine and has yet to come to grips with the consequences: “What are they going to do, fire me?” she asked the nurse. 

All told, 88% of health care staff at VA had told the department they were vaccinated by Oct. 8, the last day to get the shots. Management gave employees until this week to either request exemptions or prove they had, in fact, been vaccinated. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has stated that accommodating a religious belief could constitute an "undue hardship" for an agency if it “compromises workplace safety [or] infringes on the rights of other employees.” 

Some agencies, such as the Bureau of Prisons, where only about half of employees were vaccinated as of early October, and the Transportation Security Administration, where the rate is just 60%, are still lagging behind national averages. A union official recently estimated that between 10% and 20% of BOP’s workforce would leave their jobs as a result of the mandate, while the TSA chief said the agency is “building contingency plans” for a mass exodus of employees. The Pentagon is butting heads with the Archbishop for the Military Services Timothy Broglio, who recently said no one should be forced to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Defense has affirmed that less than half of the department’s 760,000 civilian employees have been vaccinated. Most federal workers have until Nov. 22 to be fully vaccinated. 

While Smith at NASA is prepared to leave immediately if her religious exemption request is denied, she is vowing to fight on. Despite the longstanding and widespread precedent for government-mandated vaccinations, she views her efforts as integral to protecting Americans’ First Amendment rights and religious liberty values. Her group is working with First Liberty United, a Christian conservative legal non-profit that has promised to go to court to fight against any members’ exemption request denial. 

“They’re prepared to go to battle,” Smith said.