“Cool Hand Luke” and COVID Vaccine Mandate for Federal Workers

Agencies are expected to begin suspending employees who are not complying with the COVID vaccine mandate.

Federal employees have known for months now that employees that do not get the COVID vaccine regimen could be facing disciplinary action—up to and including removal from federal service.

No doubt, firing a number of federal employees who have not received the vaccinations required by President Biden’s Executive Order would create some political problems in an administration experiencing fallout from its handling of COVID and is leading to a spate of trips to courthouses across the country.

Importance of the COVID Vaccine Mandate for Federal Workforce

The federal employee vaccine mandate is a key element of the administration’s response to dealing with the pandemic. The deadline for federal workers to comply with the mandate was November 22, 2021. At that time, the White House issued a press release noting that 92% of federal employees had received at least one vaccine dose.

Despite the political and legal problems the administration is encountering over its handling of vaccine mandates for Americans, various federal agencies are now starting to take action to ensure compliance in the federal workforce.

According to The Hill, federal agencies as varied as Treasury, Transportation, and Agriculture, as well as the General Services Administration, Social Security Administration, and Nuclear Regulatory Commission are reportedly going to begin suspending employees in coming weeks if they are not complying with the mandate.

Keep in mind that the legal battles for federal employees will not necessarily follow the same path as the mandate for private-sector employees. As attorney Matthew Tully noted earlier in predicting legal challenges to the federal vaccine mandate:

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.

COVID Vaccine Mandate and the Federal Workforce

The vaccine mandate has led to the creation of new groups such as Feds4MedFreedom which now has a website, Facebook page and is involved in lawsuits against the federal government to try and derail the vaccine mandate.

While federal employee unions would normally be expected to be in the forefront of an issue such as a mandatory vaccination for employees they represent, the politics of the situation have led to unions being largely absent.

Federal employee unions may be more interested in maintaining their political relationship with the president and the Democratic party and the benefits that can be bestowed on unions as institutions. Union locals may have a different approach as they are closer to employees they represent but national leaders have not been in the forefront of defending employees and criticizing the president who received their support during the election campaign.

One 20-year federal employee has achieved national publicity speaking out against President Biden’s decision to mandate vaccinations for the federal workforce. A Corps of Engineers employee wrote:

…[T]alk of “protecting” the workforce is patronizing and absurd. The government cannot protect us from COVID-19. No one can. We all know this by now. Or at least we should.

We would do better to abandon the quixotic fantasy of conquering COVID-19 and focus instead on targeted mitigation and societal adaptation. But this would require rational leadership.  

I am not holding my breath.

“…you’re gonna get your mind right”

Federal employees who had not been vaccinated were, according to guidelines from the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force (Task Force), to be educated for a “brief” five-day period as to why the vaccinations are good for them. No doubt, this possibility may have scared some federal workers into getting vaccinated even before having to undergo lengthy training on why their conclusions about the COVID vaccine were wrong. In other words, the training would aid in participants getting their “mind right” to comply with the mandate.

For readers who may be older movie fans, this directive will recall a scene from “Cool Hand Luke”—the 1960’s movie starring Paul Newman. In that movie, Paul Newman is advised, after suffering a severe beating:

“You run one time, you got yourself a set of chains. You run twice, you got yourself two sets. You ain’t gonna need no third set ’cause you’re gonna get your mind right. And I mean RIGHT.”

Presumably, the press release from the administration did not have that image in mind when sending federal employees for a “brief” five-day education program on COVID vaccinations.

But the approach was apparently successful. A Department of Transportation representative was quoted as noting the agency “saw more compliance following education and counseling steps completed in December and next stops fo the enforcement process will involve letters warning of brief suspensions for those few still not in compliance.”

Agencies Moving Forward on Implementing COVID Vaccine Mandate

In any event, the federal employee compliance rate with the mandate is high. The administration is now moving ahead with taking more severe disciplinary action. “Agencies continue to move forward with the process, including taking progressive disciplinary measures as necessary,” a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) told The Hill

Regardless of what happens with current cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, legal challenges to the mandate involving the federal workforce will involve different issues.

As cases begin to emerge from the courts involving the federal workforce, FedSmith will provide updates to readers. But, as noted above, the federal workforce is already largely in compliance with the mandate. Those employees who do not have an exception approved, or those that still refuse to comply, are putting their federal careers at risk.

The implications of court decisions for future mandates may have even more of an impact on future federal workers than the current COVID vaccine mandate.

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