VA Has Disciplined 74 Employees Related to Its COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate
One of the few agencies still enforcing the vaccine requirement has fired very few workers as a result.
The Veterans Affairs Department has only disciplined a few dozen employees related to its mandate that most of its workforce is vaccinated against COVID-19, which is serving as a test case while the requirement for the rest of the government remains in legal limbo.
VA has only fired 10 employees related to the vaccine mandate, one of the few still in effect in the federal government. It has otherwise disciplined 64 workers, including 24 suspensions. The disciplinary actions followed non-compliance with the mandate, which a VA spokesman said can include failure to follow safety protocols or failure to report vaccination status or request an exception.
The department has only fired four additional employees since late April, though there are some signs it is beginning to pick up the pace. One unvaccinated VA nurse based in Minnesota said her facility is just now starting to send out disciplinary and termination notices, and it is doing so on a rolling basis. She has yet to receive any such notice, instead being asked to wear an N95 mask while at work and test for COVID-19 twice per week.
“My time will be coming up soon,” said the employee, who requested anonymity to avoid further repercussions. She added she has been on leave for the last two weeks and expects to receive something when she returns, but said she has already been cautioned about potential discipline. Many employees have quit before they could face disciplinary action, she said, leaving her facility with a shortage of nurses in some units.
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 court has 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. A panel of that court had briefly overturned that injunction for the federal workforce at-large, but governmentwide enforcement of the mandate never resumed and it is once again paused pending a rehearing of the case.
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.
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 2021, 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 only be subject to the governmentwide mandate if the Biden administration is successful in court.
VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in April the department was 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.”
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, as VA is meeting its requirement to offer reasonable accommodations. VA is also sorting through whether employees are in a position to be accommodated.