Fedweek

Deadlines are fast approaching under the Biden administration’s Coronavirus vaccine mandate for federal employees, leaving likely several hundred thousand employees who are not yet vaccinated with only a few weeks to decide between getting the vaccine, requesting an exception, or facing potential discipline up to firing.

The mandate set November 22 as the deadline to be fully vaccinated, but given the waiting periods required afterward, that made October 11 the latest date to receive the first shot of one of the two-dose Moderna vaccine; October 18 for the first shot of the Pfizer vaccine; and November 8 for the only shot of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine.

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The latest guidance stated that agencies are not to begin discipline — typically, five days of counseling, followed by a suspension of less than 14 days, and then potentially firing—for unvaccinated employees if they have an approved exception or have one under consideration.

It’s up to agencies to set their own deadlines for employees to make such requests. That date might fall well before November 22; agencies can begin that disciplinary process as soon as November 9 otherwise for the unvaccinated.

The VA earlier had issued its own mandate for its Veterans Health Administration, setting a deadline to be fully vaccinated by October 8. However, the department is extending that by 10 days during which those employees can continue to ask for exceptions.

Data on vaccination rates in federal agency are incomplete, with only the VA and DoD reporting regularly—in part because both have extensive onsite vaccination programs and have records of employees being vaccinated there.

The VA says that about 320,000 of its 420,000 employees are fully vaccinated, although it does not specify how many of the rest are subject to the earlier deadline for the VHA, which accounts for some 380,000. DoD reports about the same number of fully vaccinated employees, plus 46,000 partially vaccinated, out of a workforce of about 750,000.

For both departments the numbers likely are somewhat low because they reflect only employees who have been vaccinated onsite or who already have reported that they are vaccinated. However, since those two departments account for about half of federal employment, the number of the unvaccinated likely is well into the hundreds of thousands.

How many will seek an exception, and of those how many will be granted one, also is unknown. Under the guidance, employees who get an approved exception will be subject to stricter safety protocols and testing when onsite; more guidance has been promised regarding testing requirements.

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At least one employee organization, the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, is encouraging employees to apply for an exception if they believe they qualify, although like other employee groups it has not filed a suit against the mandate after concluding that such a suit would not succeed.

A suit recently was filed, however, by several federal employees along with several military personnel under a similar mandate for them.

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