What Happens to Federal Employees Who Refuse a COVID Test?

According to new guidelines, federal employees who refuse mandatory COVID tests could find themselves facing disciplinary measures.

Federal employees who refuse to take a COVID test may face disciplinary measures according to some new information from the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force.

A series of new frequently asked questions provide more details about the ongoing evolution of the new COVID-19 guidelines for federal employees that President Biden announced last month.

In addition to pursuing disciplinary measures, federal agencies may bar their employees from the workplace “for the safety of others” if they refuse to get tested. Here is what the Task Force has to say about the matter:

Q: What steps may an agency take if a Federal employee refuses to take a test?

A: Refusals to take a test may result in disciplinary measures. In addition to pursuing any disciplinary action, an agency may separately elect to bar the employee from the agency workplace for the safety of others pending resolution of any disciplinary or other action the agency may pursue. Any decision to bar the employee should occur in consultation with the agency’s onsite security authority, agency’s human resources office, and agency’s legal counsel. If the agency bars the employee from the workplace, and the nature of the employee’s work does not allow for it to be performed outside of the workplace, the employee must be placed on paid administrative leave until the question of disciplinary action is resolved. In pursuing an adverse action, the agency must also follow normal processes to provide the required notice to the employee.

However, if an employee raises a disability or religious issue as the reason for not being tested, an agency should follow its process to review and consider what, if any, reasonable accommodation should be offered. All agency personnel designated to receive requests for disability accommodations should also know how to handle requests consistent with other Federal employment nondiscrimination laws that may apply—for instance, with respect to religious accommodations. While the request is being resolved, the agency may bar the employee from official worksites. During that temporary period, the agency may direct the employee to work from home. If the employee’s duties cannot be performed via telework, the employee should be granted administrative leave.

If the employee’s request for an accommodation is denied, and the employee does not comply with the testing requirement, the agency may pursue disciplinary action.

The Task Force also notes that agencies cannot force federal employees to work remotely or telework solely on the basis of their vaccination status.

Other items among the new FAQs: agencies must bear the cost of the COVID testing programs, they can use any COVID-19 viral test to conduct the testing, and federal employees are paid for the time it takes to get a required COVID test since it is considered duty time, although the Task Force states, “In most circumstances, agencies should authorize employees to take no more than one hour to travel to the testing site, complete testing, and return to work.”

With respect to travel costs to a testing site, the Task Force states that “reasonable travel costs” should be handled just like local travel or temporary duty cost reimbursements are normally handled by the agency.

Of course, any federal employees who can work remotely can avoid all of this by just working at home. The Task Force also notes that all of these additional COVID guidelines only apply to federal employees and contractors who report to work in agency offices.

About the Author

Ian Smith is one of the co-founders of FedSmith.com. He has over 20 years of combined experience in media and government services, having worked at two government contracting firms and an online news and web development company prior to his current role at FedSmith.