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It Will Cost Up to $5 Million a Week to Test Unvaccinated Feds While Biden's COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate Is Paused

The estimate comes as part of information the Biden administration provided the court in Texas that handed down the injunction.

The government will incur between $11 million and $22 million per month in extra testing costs while its COVID-19 vaccine mandate remains on pause, the Biden administration recently told a federal court. 

Only about 2% of federal employees remained unvaccinated when a judge issued a nationwide injunction on President Biden’s requirement last month, but administration officials say agencies are now scrambling to determine new plans to deal with those individuals—who number in the tens of thousands—while keeping the rest of the workforce safe. One such consequence of the pause, the officials told the U.S. District Court in Texas that issued the injunction, is an increased need for COVID-19 testing. Pandemic protocols that remain in place require at least weekly testing for unvaccinated employees, which the administration estimated would cost between $1.4 million and $2.7 million for the 1% of the workforce that requires them. 

Those costs will likely grow as newly hired federal employees are similarly no longer subject to a mandate. The government typically hires more than 20,000 new employees per month. The costs are on top of those agencies will incur to test employees who are unvaccinated but were seeking an exemption to the mandate. 

“​​The longer these individuals remain unvaccinated and employed in federal agencies, the more taxpayers’ costs will increase,” Jason Miller, the Office of Management and Budget’s deputy director for management, said in a declaration to the court. “Should the percentage of unvaccinated employees increase over time as new hires come aboard, as is expected while the injunction remains in place, agency testing expenses will increase accordingly.” 

Miller projected further costs to agencies, as they must now revamp their plans to bring employees back to their officers and other duty stations. Those plans, which required significant manpower to develop with assistance from public health experts and the administration, were in many cases finalized and negotiated with relevant unions. They are now being reconstructed in light of the injunction, which will require a new round of collective bargaining. 

The Biden administration has appealed the ruling to the Fifth Circuit and is asking the district court to stay its injunction while that case plays out. Allowing for implementation to continue, officials said, would prevent agencies from having to once again rework their reentry plans if they are ultimately successful in court and the mandate is reinstated. Justice Department attorneys told the lower court the government would seek an immediate reversal at the appellate level if the district court does not grant its stay by Thursday. 

Miller and the Justice officials further suggested the court should at least allow the administration to process exception requests, as delaying their adjudication is leading to even more costs. 

“In sum, each day that the vaccination requirement for federal employees is delayed requires agencies that provide critical support for U.S. foreign policy, global financial systems, American infrastructure, and the pandemic response to devote additional time and resources to ensuring the safety of the federal workforce above and beyond the substantial time and resources already devoted to these efforts,” Miller said, “time and resources that would otherwise be spent doing critical mission function to the benefit of the American people.”

The attorneys for Feds for Medical Freedom, the group that brought the lawsuit, said the judge should reject the government’s stay request as it largely relied on the same legal arguments the court previously rejected. They added the processing of exemption requests should remain paused, as employees are already suffering harm from it. They cited an example in which a CIA employee—George O’Sullivan—was granted a religious exception prior to the injunction, but was told he either had to take leave without pay or accept a lower grade position. If he did not accept either of those options, the CIA would have considered him out of compliance with the mandate and entered him into the disciplinary process. O’Sullivan submitted a sworn affidavit to the court to confirm those events and said the new position he accepted required a $60,000 pay cut. 

“There is no reason for the government to process exemptions to an illegal mandate that is already enjoined,” the attorney said. “And there is certainly cause for concern that, if allowed to continue “processing” exemption requests, the government would take the same kind of tactics used with Mr. O’Sullivan, whose experience is unlikely to be unique.”

A spokesperson for the CIA said the agency approved most religious exemption requests and denied that any accommodation had resulted in a pay grade reduction for an employee. O'Sullivan said the pay reduction stemmed in part from no longer being eligible for overtime in his new positions. 

"For a select number of unvaccinated officers whose essential job functions prevented them from complying with COVID-19 mitigation and safety measures, such as wearing a mask and social distancing, the accommodation offered was a reassignment to another position for which they were qualified," the spokesperson said. 

The Biden administration’s Safer Federal Workforce Task Force previously warned that employees with valid exemptions could still be subject to firings. 

“In some cases, the nature of the employee’s job may be such that an agency determines that no safety protocol other than vaccination is adequate,” the task force said in guidance last year. “In such circumstances, the agency may deny the requested accommodation.”

This story has been updated with comment from the CIA.