Vaccine Mandates, Unions, and Politics: A Volatile Mix

Unions support the Biden Administration and represent federal employees. Will vaccine negotiations delay or prevent federal employees from returning to their offices?

As we wade through the COVID pandemic, the specific issues change but the topic continues to dominate national news headlines and political events.

For many federal employees, the latest issue is what will be required of them (vaccine optional?) to prevent the spread of the virus after returning to federal offices. No doubt, many will continue to work at home and won’t be going into the office. Others will return because they want to or it is necessary for an agency to operate effectively.

President Biden recently announced new policies for all federal employees as part of a strategy to “help protect workers and their communities” from COVID-19. Federal employees will now have to attest to their vaccination status or be subjected to weekly or twice weekly COVID tests, wearing masks, travel restrictions and maintaining distance from others.

This announcement was quickly followed by more detailed guidance on what to expect when returning to work. The guidance is from the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force.

Role of Federal Employee Unions in Implementing Guidance

Since this is the federal government with multiple moving parts, it is not as simple as issuing a directive with a myriad of details and expecting it to go smoothly.

Shortly after the announcement of the changes was issued, AFGE issued a statement that reads, in part:

We expect that the particulars of any changes to working conditions, including those related to COVID-19 vaccines and associated protocols, be properly negotiated with our bargaining units prior to implementation.

Not to be outdone, the National Treasury Employees Union issued a statement, saying, “This guidance reaffirms the administration’s position that agencies should bargain with unions over their reentry plans before recalling employees back into offices. Some topics that may arise during bargaining include how much advance notice will be provided to employees before they are required to return; safety measures for employees in the office; and assistance for those with dependent care issues.”

The guidance from the Task Force also recognized the role of federal employee unions. Federal employees are going to be asked about their vaccination status. The Task Force guidance stated, “In requesting this information, agencies should comply with any applicable Federal laws, including requirements under the Privacy Act and the Paperwork Reduction Act, and any applicable collective bargaining obligations.”

Political Allies With Some Different Issues

Federal employee unions are virtually in lockstep with Democrats on political issues. Their time and money support Democrats running for office and the unions are very supportive of their candidates if they are elected.

This issue may require more diplomacy than usual.

Unions are staking out their role to demonstrate they are protecting their union members. The press releases are generally polite and supportive and backing the Biden Administration efforts. The concerns of federal employees and the political alliances of the federal employee unions are not always the same.

Strong Views of Federal Employees on Vaccines

A few days ago, it appeared a vaccination requirement was going to be issued by the Biden Administration for federal employees returning to work with the proviso that those not vaccinated would have to undergo regular testing—and that a vaccine mandate for all federal employees is “something that is under consideration right now.”

We do not know if a vaccine mandate for federal employees is still being considered but it would not be politically popular.

FedSmith did a quick survey asking readers which asked, “Should all federal employees be required to get fully vaccinated against COVID as a condition of their employment?” With more than 2,300 people responding, 59.9% were opposed to a vaccine requirement being a condition of employment. 55.7% indicated they did not think the federal government has the legal authority to issue a vaccination requirement for the federal workforce.

Attorney Matthew B. Tully considered the topic and concluded:

Using the past as a guide for the future, we can assume that, should President Biden issue an order to make all Federal employees take the vaccine, it would be relatively justifiable. This isn’t to say it wouldn’t be well-received, but it would be enforceable. Coupled with the fact that there are multiple vaccines that have received emergency use authorization in the U.S., there is nothing stopping them from a technical legal standpoint.

He also noted that “For unions, a mandate for vaccinations and/or frequent testing will violate some unions’ collective bargaining agreements (CBAs). “

Most unions have not directly and publicly stated their position on mandated vaccines. While mandated vaccines would get the federal government’s offices up and running with a full staff, many employees will not want to take the vaccine and would resent being told they have to do so.

One federal employee union, the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) represents about 25,000 federal employees. The president of IFPTE stated in an interview recently: “We are strongly supportive of mandated vaccines for federal workers.”

Inherent Conflict for Federal Unions

In the next few days and weeks, federal employee unions will be straddling the concerns of federal employees with the politics of most interest to the Biden Administration.

Testing once or twice a week for unvaccinated federal employees returning to work will not be popular. Of course, unvaccinated federal employees will be more likely to hasten the spread of the virus in the workplace. All employees returning to work will have to attest whether they have had the vaccine.

Will some federal employees falsely state they have had the vaccine? Most would not lie but assuming no one will lie will improve the chance of more widespread infection.

Will agencies require proof of the vaccinations? That would make sure the workplace is safer but some employees would not like that. Will unions support requiring proof of vaccination from employees? Perhaps some will but most unions are unlikely to agree.

Will some of the unions try to delay the implementation of the new policies on returning to work? If so, will that create a more unsafe workplace? Will an obstinate union delay the reopening of federal offices with a full staff?

Probable Outcome of Bargaining

No one knows how this will play out. Based on the interests of unions in keeping dues-paying members happy, the interests of politicians in keeping their union supporters content, and the possibility of just kicking the issue down the road of federal employees having to return to work in an office, the strongest possibility is the most obvious one.

The obligation to bargain with federal employee unions will increase the use of telework in federal agencies. The unions will want to give employees the option of not having to go back to work in an office. Instead, they are likely to want to allow more liberal telework policies in all agencies.

Agencies will not want to force a dispute with unions on this issue. The political leaders in agencies will be inclined to avoid controversy, increase the use of telework instead of forcing employees to come back to the office, and a large majority of federal employees returning to office work will have been vaccinated.

Whether telework in federal agencies will work for a long and extended period is unknown and may not be answered. The restrictions that will be placed on testing, vaccinations and surrounding issues will likely lead to large numbers of federal employees staying away from the office and fewer agencies having fully staffed public facilities.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47