Just days remaining before the deadline for federal employees to receive a Coronavirus vaccination under the mandate and disciplinary actions could soon follow, although indications are that such actions will not necessarily be immediate nor fast-moving.
Taking into account the two-week waiting period afterward that required to be considered fully vaccinated by the deadline of November 22, employees would need to receive either the single Johnson and Johnson vaccine or the second dose of the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccines no later than next Monday (November 8).
“Once we hit those deadlines, we expect federal agencies and contractors will follow their standard HR processes and that, for any of the probably relatively small percent of employees that are not in compliance, they’ll go through education, counseling, accommodations, and then enforcement,” COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients said last week.
“So, these processes play out across weeks, not days. And so, to be clear, we’re creating flexibility within the system. We’re offering people multiple opportunities to get vaccinated. There is not a cliff here. And the purpose, I think, most importantly, is to get people vaccinated and protected, not to punish them,” he said.
For unvaccinated employees without an approved or pending request for an exception, a progressive process could begin as soon as November 9—starting with a counseling period of five days, then an unpaid suspension of less than two weeks, and then discipline up to and including firing.
While there is no government-wide count of employees not yet fully vaccinated, data from DoD and VA alone suggest that the figure is at least in the tens of thousands and likely in the hundreds of thousands.
Under administration policy, an agency could freeze a disciplinary process already underway if employees change their minds and begin a course of vaccination. That could happen during the counseling period (when employees would be working as normal), during the suspension (which would be unpaid and off work) or during the period (typically 30 days minimum) between when a disciplinary action is proposed and an agency makes a final decision after giving the employee a chance to respond.
The VA, which is being watched as an example because most of its employees were subject to an earlier deadline, also has said that the entire process could consume several months—although it also stressed that the eventual default penalty for non-compliance will be firing. However, it has released no further details regarding its disciplinary process in the two weeks since those statements.
Further, agencies are not to begin disciplinary action against unvaccinated employees while requests for exceptions on medical or religious grounds are under consideration. Given that such requests must examined individually—with involvement of HR, legal and other offices—that alone could take some time. While requests are pending, those employees are to be subject to the stricter safety protocols for onsite work by unvaccinated employees—protocols that further still would apply if they do receive exceptions.
At least two lawsuits are seeking to block the mandate, the latest from the AFGE council of Bureau of Prisons locals. However, the AFGE national office and other federal unions and associations are not sponsoring suits after concluding that they would fail. (Multiple suits also have been filed against the parallel mandate for employees of government contractors.)
Meanwhile, a newly offered bill (S-3095) from a group of Senate Republicans would require that all fully vaccinated federal employees—except those at DoD—be returned to the work schedules and locations that applied to them before the pandemic. Sponsors cited backlogs and reduced customer service at agencies including the SSA, IRS and VA.