Fedweek

The debate over exceptions to the Biden administration’s Coronavirus vaccine mandate for federal employees is continuing up to the deadline for employees to comply, with meanwhile a revision to the model form to be used for requesting an exception on religious grounds.

The number of employees who have requested exceptions on religious or medical grounds is unknown; the only agency that has directly addressed the issue, the VA, has indicated that it has received a substantial number of requests for religious reasons.

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The revised version of the model form employees are to use to request an exception on those grounds shifts from an earlier focus having employees answer a list of specific questions to a more narrative approach. For example, a former question asking employees to identify any other medicines or product they do not use because of the religious belief has been dropped. And while the new form continues a request to disclose whether the employee has received any other vaccines as an adult, it drops a requirement for them to list which and when.

Further, the new version adds a statement that “An individual’s beliefs—or degree of adherence—may change over time and, therefore, an employee’s newly adopted or inconsistently observed practices may nevertheless be based on a sincerely held religious belief.”

However, like the earlier version, it stresses that a refusal to be vaccinated must be based on a sincerely held belief; that personal preferences or non-religious concerns about the vaccine do not qualify; and that any intentional misrepresentation “may result in legal consequences, including termination or removal from federal service.”

Meanwhile, the top Republicans on the House Oversight and Reform Committee have sent a letter to OPM, OMB and GSA criticizing the administration’s “insistence on allowing extremely few exemptions.”

They wrote that in a recent briefing, officials indicated that they “intend to allow medically-related exemptions only for those already proven to be allergic to available vaccines and those under other exemptions yet to be specified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The possibility of exemptions for those already possessing natural immunity to COVID-19 was not adequately addressed by the President’s orders, and it was likewise inadequately addressed by the briefing. Yet, science is emerging that natural immunity may be as or more effective than vaccine-induced immunity.”

A newly offered House bill (HR-5741) would allow an exception for those who prove they have antibodies against COVID-19.

Further, “there as yet seems to be no room for exemptions based on personal reasons like those that would validly lead an employee, in consultation with their doctor, to decline vaccination,” said the letter from Reps. James Comer, R-Ky., and Jody Hice, R-Ga.

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They asked for data on the numbers of vaccinated federal workers and of disciplinary actions, adding that if the administration’s estimates of turnover due to the mandate prove to be too optimistic, “they risk significant disruption of agency missions.”

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2021 Federal Employees Handbook