COVID-19 Vaccination Deadline Arrives for 380K VA Employees. 45K Still Haven’t Said They’ve Gotten Shots.
The department is giving those employees 10 more days to prove they have been vaccinated or seek an exception before discipline begins.
Friday marked the deadline for the vast majority of Veterans Affairs Department employees to complete their COVID-19 vaccination, though more than 45,000 have yet to demonstrate that they have done so.
Those employees may eventually face disciplinary action, including being fired, but VA is giving them 10 more days to submit the requisite documentation or request an exemption. The 380,000 VA employees working in or near the health care field faced a deadline of Oct. 8 to receive their vaccines, about six weeks earlier than the rest of the federal workforce, due to the department issuing its own mandate independently of the one put in place by President Biden.
About 88% of the impacted workforce has so far received a shot, according to data VA has collected. Employees must submit documentation of their vaccination by Oct. 18, or request a religious or medical accommodation. The Biden-created Safer Federal Workforce Task Force has directed agencies to determine whether an exemption is legally required by examining the basis for the claim, the nature of the employee's job and its impact on agency operations. The group, made up of officials from the White House, Office of Personnel Management and General Services Administration, told agencies they may still fire employees with otherwise valid exemptions if the employees are in certain types of jobs where no other safety protocol would be sufficient.
Terrence Hayes, a VA spokesman, could not say how many exemption requests the department has received, noting it will only collect that data after the Oct. 18 deadline. He added VA will have a “more accurate” count of its unvaccinated population after that date.
VA will begin disciplining unvaccianted staff after that deadline. Hayes said the department will weigh various factors in determining the appropriate punishment, including relevant Douglas Factors and other “aggravating and mitigating” details. As recommended by Biden’s task force, VA will begin the progressive discipline process with counseling that educates employees on the benefits of the vaccines and encourages them to get inoculated. If that is not followed by a “good-faith effort” to get vaccinated, VA will move to a suspension of 14 days or less.
“If, after counseling and after any discipline for the initial non-compliance with the policy, the employee does not take steps to comply with the requirement, further progressive discipline will be taken, which could include removal from federal service,” Hayes said. “Each case will be assessed independently, based on the facts and circumstances surrounding that case and any extenuating and mitigating circumstances.”
VA Secretary Denis McDonough said last month the department was making a significant push to reach unvaccinated employees, including by collaborating with “influencers” and employee unions. While he said VA was "making preparations" to carry out firings as necessary, he hoped it would not come to that.
“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.”
The vaccination rate for health care staff has ticked up in recent weeks. In mid-September, only 82% of workers had attested to their vaccination status and within that subgroup, only 88% had said they were fully or partially vaccinated.
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 have not they should lose their jobs.
Other VA personnel—the non-health care staff who are newly facing a requirement under Biden’s federal workforce-wide order—face a Nov. 22 deadline to get their shots.