President Biden rescinded three COVID-era executive orders last week, shifting pandemic response and updating federal employee leave policies.

President Biden rescinded three COVID-era executive orders last week, shifting pandemic response and updating federal employee leave policies. MANDEL NGAN / Getty Images

Biden rescinds COVID-era executive orders, folding safer federal workforce task force

The Office of Personnel Management issued new guidance last week rescinding some forms of COVID-19-related administrative leave, but preserving four hours of paid leave for federal employees to get vaccine booster shots.

President Biden last week rescinded a trio of executive orders enacted during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, shuttering temporary panels like the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force and shuffling duties to a fledgling White House office devoted to pandemic response.

The Executive Order on COVID-19 and Public Health Preparedness and Response, signed Friday, ends edicts aimed at preventing the hoarding of medical supplies, promoting pandemic-era travel safety policies and the order that required mask-wearing in federal facilities and creating the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force.

The order also does away with the position of the COVID-19 response coordinator, shifting that position’s responsibilities to the Office of Pandemic Preparedness and Response, a White House office founded through an appropriations bill passed by Congress in December 2022.

“The OPPR is providing advice, within the Executive Office of the President, on policy related to preparedness for, and response to, pandemic and other biological threats that may impact national security," Biden wrote. "The OPPR is also supporting my administration’s continued work to address COVID-19 and other public health threats, facilitating coordination and communication among executive departments and agencies to ensure that the United States can quickly detect, identify and respond to such threats as necessary. At this stage of my administration’s response to COVID-19, I have determined that certain executive orders are no longer necessary and that certain roles and responsibilities established by other executive orders related to COVID-19 should be transferred to OPPR.”

OPM updates COVID leave policy

With the shuttering of the White House’s Safer Federal Workforce Task Force, the Office of Personnel Management announced Friday that it would update the types of leave offered to federal workers related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a memo to agency heads, OPM Director Kiran Ahuja said the federal government’s HR agency would continue to “strongly encourage” agencies to provide federal employees with up to four hours of administrative leave in order to receive a COVID-19 booster vaccine, albeit only if the employee has received advance approval from their supervisor. In instances where the agency mandates that employees in specific jobs be vaccinated, the employee must be granted duty time credit, rather than leave, to receive a COVID-19 vaccine during work hours.

But other forms of leave are on their way out. OPM said agencies are no longer required to provide administrative leave in instances when an employee is assisting a family member in getting a vaccine, when an employee has an adverse reaction to the vaccine or when an employee has symptoms of COVID-19 but before they have been tested.

“Upon an employee’s request, supervisors may approve of sick leave for the above circumstances,” Ahuja wrote. “Employees may also choose to seek approval to use other paid or unpaid time off in lieu of sick leave or choose to use various work scheduling flexibilities, pursuant to agency policies.”

And, as already indicated by the task force prior to its disbandment, agencies should no longer provide weather and safety leave in connection with COVID-19.

“During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic when the rapid spread of the disease posed serious health risks for local communities, weather and safety leave was used to address some of those extraordinary circumstances," Ahuja wrote. "For example, OPM guidance advised agencies to grant weather and safety leave during quarantine periods for employees who (1) had been exposed to COVID-19, (2) were not sick (that is, did not have COVID-19 symptoms or had not tested positive for COVID-19), and (3) were unable to telework. Current CDC guidance no longer recommends quarantine based on COVID-19 exposure, so the former policy is no longer necessary or applicable.”

In a statement, National Treasury Employees Union National President Doreen Greenwald said that although her union is heartened to see that OPM will continue to encourage leave for federal workers to stay on top of their COVID-19 vaccinations, she warned that the pandemic still is not over.

“The health and safety of federal employees is a top priority for NTEU,” Greenwald said. “The Safer Federal Workforce Task Force helped protect federal employees during an unprecedented health emergency and we appreciate those efforts. The threat from COVID-19 may have diminished, but it is not erased.”