The Safer Federal Workforce Task Force has released more new guidance on the new COVID vaccination policies that President Biden announced last week. Among the new information is a stern warning for federal employees who might be tempted to lie about their vaccination status.
New FAQ’s on COVID Vaccinations
Shortly after Biden announced the new vaccination policies for federal employees, the Task Force issued guidance with more details on what federal employees and agencies could expect. The new policies state that federal workers will be asked about their vaccination status; if they have not been fully vaccinated or they choose not to respond, they will be subject to more stringent safety protocols than federal employees who are fully vaccinated.
Some FedSmith readers raised the question as to how agencies would go about checking the vaccine status and what is to stop somebody from simply lying about his or her vaccine status. The Task Force addressed this with some new guidance. It created a template form for agencies to give to their employees employees when asking for their vaccine status which contains a stern warning in the disclaimer section:
I understand that a knowing and willful false statement on this form can be punished by fine or imprisonment or both (18 U.S.C. 1001). Checking “I decline to respond” does not constitute a false statement. I understand that making a false statement on this form could result in additional administrative action including an adverse personnel action up to and including removal from my position.
The law cited in the form’s disclaimer (18 U.S.C. 1001) says this in section 3:
[whoever knowingly and willfully makes a false statement] shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 5 years or, if the offense involves international or domestic terrorism (as defined in section 2331), imprisoned not more than 8 years, or both. If the matter relates to an offense under chapter 109A, 109B, 110, or 117, or section 1591, then the term of imprisonment imposed under this section shall be not more than 8 years.
It is important to note, however, that declining to answer is not considered making a false statement. This is only an issue if somebody were to say he or she had been given the vaccine when in fact s/he had not.
The Task Force addresses this in one of its FAQs about vaccinations:
Q: Are there penalties for providing false information on the vaccination attestation form?
A: Federal employees who make a false statement on the Certification of Vaccination form could be subject to an adverse personnel action, up to and including removal from their position. It is also a federal crime (18 U.S.C. § 1001) for anyone to provide false information on the form. Falsification could also affect continuing eligibility for access to classified information or for employment in a national security position under applicable adjudicative guidelines.
Declining to answer—including selecting “I decline to respond” on the Certification of Vaccination form—does not constitute providing false information.
Besides being a federal crime, federal employees who lie in this instance could face disciplinary action.
Also, the White House Office of Management and Budget said recently that federal employees who refuse to get regular COVID testing under the new safety protocols could be subject to progressive disciplinary action. Federal employees who have not had the vaccine or decline to provide their status will be subject to regular weekly COVID tests.
But will agencies really know a person’s vaccination status?
It’s hard to say for sure. Despite the strong push to get every federal employee’s vaccination status, the Task Force also tells agencies they should not request documentation from their employees to verify the accuracy of the information, unless the agency “receives a good faith allegation that strongly suggests that an employee made a false statement on the Certification of Vaccination form”.
Another FAQ from the Task Force says:
Q: Should agencies request documentation to verify an employee’s vaccination status?
A: Agencies should not request documentation to verify an employee’s vaccination status. If the agency receives a good faith allegation that strongly suggests that an employee made a false statement on the Certification of Vaccination form, the agency may request documentation as part of its investigation into the alleged false statement. If an employee who has attested to being vaccinated exhibits symptoms of COVID-19 illness, the agency should apply its safety protocols, but this is not an appropriate reason to request documentation to verify an employee’s vaccination status.
The Task Force also said that some agencies may already have an employee’s vaccination status on file. For example, an agency may have administered the COVID vaccine directly to employees and would have that on record. In these cases, that information will suffice for knowing a person’s status and setting the safety protocols for him or her accordingly, so the agency in that case would not be required to collect duplicative information through the Certification of Vaccination form.
Some federal employees may choose not to get the vaccine for medical or religious reasons. The Task Force addresses this question as well:
Q: What if an employee is not vaccinated due to a medical or religious reason?
A: Employees who are not vaccinated due to medical or religious reasons should check either “I have not been vaccinated” or “I decline to respond” on the Certification of Vaccination form and must follow the safety protocols in place for not fully vaccinated persons. After submitting the form, they may then use the agency’s established reasonable accommodations process to seek an accommodation, if necessary, related to agency safety protocols or procedures.
The bottom line is that federal agencies are instructed to treat vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals differently under the new COVID-19 protocols, and this will apply not only to federal employees and contractors but to visitors in federal buildings.