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VA Has Fired Just Six Employees Over Its COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate

The department was carved out from an injunction on Biden's governmentwide mandate, offering a preview of how the soon-to-be-resumed requirement may play out.

The Veterans Affairs Department has fired just six employees who refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19, though that number could continue to grow in the coming weeks as it continues enforcement of its mandate. 

VA has pushed all of its unvaccinated staff to seek religious or medical exemptions and has not questioned the legitimacy of any of those requests. In some areas, however, such as intensive care units and oncology, the department has decided the risk posed to veterans is too great to allow unvaccinated employees to continue to serve there. VA has mostly offered those workers other positions that interact with less vulnerable patients or did not require in-person attendance, allowing it to actually fire so few staff. 

Unlike the vast majority of federal agencies, VA has never paused its enforcement of its COVID-19 mandate for its health care workforce. A federal judge enjoined the requirement issued by President Biden for the rest of the federal workforce, but VA had issued its own mandate independently of that executive order. An appeals court has overturned that injunction for the federal workforce at-large, but governmentwide enforcement of the mandate is still on hold as the legal process plays out.   

VA has fired four employees for refusing to wear a mask, one for refusing to get tested and one for declining to provide their vaccination status at all, Secretary Denis McDonough said on Monday. 

The department is in the midst of a “very, shall we say, comprehensive process that each employee has access to and so we’ll see how that continues to play out,” McDonough added, explaining that additional firings are still possible. 

Individual facilities are still sorting through the disciplinary process, which starts with counseling, leads to suspensions and eventually results in firings. Exempted employees across the department are taking on new assignments, McDonough said, as VA is meeting its requirement to offer reasonable accommodations. 

All employees of the Veterans Health Administration—about 380,000 workers—are still subject to the vaccine requirement. VA issued its own mandate for those employees in July, prior to Biden's executive order for the rest of the federal workforce. The rest of VA’s employees, such as those at the Veterans Benefits Administration and National Cemetery Administration, will once again be subject to the governmentwide mandate in the coming weeks provided a pending appeal is unsuccessful. 

While 98% of the VA workforce was already in compliance with Biden's order prior to the broader injunction, only 89% had been vaccinated—one of the lowest rates of any large federal agency.