With a new Executive Order issued on September 9, 2021 requiring mandatory vaccinations for federal employees, working in the federal government has changed. In this instance, at least, the administration is taking the issue head-on and intends to make the federal workforce a “model” for how private companies should approach the issue.
Executive Order Requiring Mandatory Vaccinations of Federal Employees
In the new Executive Order, President Biden stated:
I have determined that to promote the health and safety of the Federal workforce and the efficiency of the civil service, it is necessary to require COVID-19 vaccination for all Federal employees, subject to such exceptions as required by law.
Each agency shall implement, to the extent consistent with applicable law, a program to require COVID-19 vaccination for all of its Federal employees, with exceptions only as required by law.
Mandatory Vaccinations Within 75 Days
According to White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, Federal employees will have 75 days to get vaccinated. If an employee has not been vaccinated and does not fall within the narrow exclusions that will be allowed, the employee can be terminated. Gone is the option previously announced in July to allow federal employees to opt for regular COVID testing rather than getting the vaccine.
Psaki said today, ‘There will be limited exceptions for legally recognized reasons, disability or religious objections. Anyone who fails to comply, they will go through the standard HR process, which includes counseling and face disciplinary action,” she added.
The action taken could include termination if a person refuses to be vaccinated.
“Hopefully it won’t come to that,” according to Ms. Psaki.
She added, “Obviously the federal workforce is one of the largest in the country and we would like to be a model to what we think other businesses, organizations should do. The expectation is that if you want to work with the federal government or be a contractor, you need to be vaccinated unless you are eligible for one of the exemptions.”
What About the Postal Service?
USPS employees will be exempt from the executive order, according to the Washington Post. The Post cited correspondence with a White House official who said that the Postal Service has a separate statutory scheme which often exempts it from personnel actions such as this one. The official added, however, that Postal employees “would be strongly encouraged to comply with the mandate.”
However, part of the Biden Administration’s plan announced today includes a directive from the Labor Department to require all businesses with 100 or more employees to ensure that their employees are either vaccinated or tested for COVID at least once a week. CNN reported that this rule would apply to the Postal Service, so despite being exempt from Biden’s mandatory vaccination executive order, Postal employees would have to either get the vaccine or submit to periodic testing.
“…tonight, I’m announcing that the Department of Labor is developing an emergency rule to require all employers with 100 or more employees, that together employ over 80 million workers, to ensure their workforces are fully vaccinated or show a negative test at least once a week,” Biden said in a speech about the new COVID policies his administration was enacting.
He added that the Labor Department rule will require employers with 100 or more workers to give those workers paid time off to get vaccinated. “No one should lose pay in order to get vaccinated or take a loved one to get vaccinated,” said Biden.
The Safer Federal Workforce Task Force has previously said that federal agencies should give their employees administrative leave to get vaccinated and/or recover from side effects from the vaccine.
What About Congress?
The vaccine mandate in the executive order only applies to federal employees in the executive branch. It does not apply to Members of Congress, their staffers, or the federal court system as those are under the legislative and judicial branches.
Workers Deserve a Voice in Policy Says AFGE
It remains to be seen how the federal employee unions will react. From comments and a survey on FedSmith, some federal employees are adamant they do not want to be vaccinated. On the other hand, unions have been close political allies and strong supporters of the Biden administration.
But, despite the close working relationship, it does not appear the unions have been involved in this latest step in combating COVID as it impacts the federal workforce.
The National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) thinks the vaccination requirement is a good idea. In a statement, the union president said:
[M]aking vaccination a condition of employment for federal employees is a step the government, as an employer, has the legal right to take. NTEU members, like American society at large, will have differing reactions to the new policy. Some employees will disagree. Others will welcome the additional security that comes with knowing that all of their coworkers are vaccinated. Either way, the law is clear that employers, including the federal government, may implement a vaccination requirement for employees.
The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) has a different approach and emphasizes “changes like this should be negotiated….” AFGE President Everett Kelley issued this statement:
Since the vaccines first became widely available, we have strongly encouraged all our members to take one of the several safe, effective vaccines against COVID-19. The data are clear. Getting vaccinated isn’t just the best way for us to end this pandemic, it is the best way for us to protect each other in the workplace.
Likewise, since President Biden made his first major announcement about changing COVID-19 protocols for the federal workforce in response to the surging Delta variant, we have said that changes like this should be negotiated with our bargaining units where appropriate. Put simply, workers deserve a voice in their working conditions.
Neither of these positions has changed. We expect to bargain over this change prior to implementation, and we urge everyone who is able to get vaccinated as soon as they can do so.
How quickly the program gets up and running and how successfully it will be implemented should go smoothly in view of the unions’ desire to work closely with the administration. How quickly and easily the program is implemented in practice remains to be seen.
In a recent survey on FedSmith, 60% of readers indicated they should not be required to get a vaccine as a condition of their employment.