The visitor entrance to Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice building is shown in 2018.

The visitor entrance to Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice building is shown in 2018. Phillip Nelson/istock

At Least One Agency To Begin Suspending Some Unvaccinated Feds Before Christmas

Internal Justice Department emails show tight timeline for suspensions and firings for those out of compliance with the president's order.

The Biden administration is looking to begin suspending some federal employees not in compliance with its COVID-19 vaccination mandate later this month, setting up an expedited timeline for its progressive discipline regiment. 

The schedule marks a change from the tone the White House has set in recent weeks. Administration officials have repeatedly stressed that Monday’s deadline for federal workers to either prove they are vaccinated or request an exemption to President Biden’s order was simply the beginning of a process and agencies would work with their employees to ensure few operational disruptions. 

“It's certainly not a cliff where we're going to look for the decreasing of the workforce anytime soon,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Monday. 

Jeff Zients, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, similarly said Monday the objective of Biden’s order was to get employees vaccinated and avoid discipline. 

“To be clear, the goal of vaccination requirements is to protect workers, not to punish them,” Zients said. 

A recent internal email sent to supervisors at the Justice Department and obtained by Government Executive, however, set a timeline that could see feds fired in the near future. Justice began its disciplinary process on Friday with "counseling letters” sent to certain employees. Workers who responded with attestation forms stating they were unvaccinated and not seeking an exemption received those letters on Monday. Employees will have exactly five calendar days from the day they got letters to begin their vaccination process and show documentation to prove it. Otherwise, they will receive notice of a proposed 10-day suspension.  For the non-responders, those notices will arrive on Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving. 

Employees will then have five days to respond and will receive a final decision within 10 days of the proposal, allowing the suspensions to begin Dec. 5. Upon returning from suspension on Dec. 15, they will have five more days to get their first shot until they receive a notice of proposed removal. The firings could then be finalized by mid-January. 

The White House disclosed on Monday that about 90% of federal personnel—including both civil servants and active-duty military—are vaccinated against Covid-19, while an additional 5% are seeking religious or medical exemptions. That leaves about 175,000 employees not in compliance with Biden’s order who are now subject to the first steps in the progressive disciplinary process. The Defense Department said earlier this month that 97% of active-duty military personnel were in compliance, meaning the more than 2 million civil servants are lagging behind the overall 95% compliance rate. The White House will unveil the agency-by-agency data on Wednesday. 

While the Biden administration has emphasized that it will engage in counseling with unvaccinated workers, Justice appears to be satisfying that obligation with simply one letter. 

“We'll continue to work with people, answer their questions, provide counseling and education, and get more and more people vaccinated,” Zients said. 

The Justice letter, a copy of which was obtained by Government Executive, states that Covid-19 vaccines are safe and effective and points recipients to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website for more information. It notes that employees have received many reminders of their obligations before informing them of their five-day countdown before more serious discipline commences. It also notifies impacted staff that they can contact the department’s Employee Assistance Program. 

One Justice supervisor said the schedule is causing discontent in the workforce. 

“Suspending employees right before the holidays and then seeking to terminate them right after has raised a lot of complaints,” the supervisor said. “Even employees who agree with the vaccine mandate find the timing harsh and also hypocritical because the deadline for contractors was pushed back to after the holidays.” 

Some parts of the department could feel the impact of upcoming suspensions more acutely than others. As of early October, just over half of the Bureau of Prisons’ 37,000 employees were vaccinated. Justice did not respond to a request for more up-to-date data. 

The Biden administration has expressed confidence the process is working, with officials noting vaccination rates accelerated as the Nov. 22 deadline drew near. They remained optimistic that faced with actual discipline, more employees will opt to get their shots. Government Executive has spoken to many employees across government who have vowed to retire or accept a firing before getting vaccinated, but most of those individuals have requested exemptions. 

“The message today, I think, is quite obvious, and that's that vaccination requirements work,” Zients said. “They're implementable without disruptions. And they boost dramatically vaccination rates.”

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