Updated: President Biden has signed an executive order requiring all executive branch employees and contractors to get the Covid-19 vaccine.
Biden – who in a speech expressed frustration with some 80 million Americans that have not gotten the vaccine despite it being “safe, effective and free” – announced the requirement as part of a broader plan to fight the coronavirus amid a surge in new cases driven by the more contagious delta variant. That plan includes a requirement for private employers with over 100 workers to start requiring employees to get the vaccine or undergo weekly testing – companies that ignore a new emergency OSHA standard for this could reportedly face fines up to $14,000 per violation.
“I have determined that ensuring the health and safety of the Federal workforce and the efficiency of the civil service requires immediate action to protect the Federal workforce and individuals interacting with the Federal workforce. It is essential that Federal employees take all available steps to protect themselves and avoid spreading COVID-19 to their co-workers and members of the public. The CDC has found that the best way to do so is to be vaccinated,” said the order.
A separate order applying to federal contractors hints at the additional administrative hurdles that lie ahead for carrying out such requirements. Those will be applied to millions of contractors and subcontractors at all levels via the contracting process. Under that order, the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force was given until September 24 to define terms and protocols necessary for compliance.
Details on the requirements for executive agencies – such as on discipline for refusing to get the vaccine, and exactly how agencies and managers are supposed to keep track of vaccine status are yet to be released, but there is sure to be confusion and there is already pushback. Reception overall has been mixed, even among federal employee unions normally cozy with Democratic administrations.
American Federation of Government Employees President Everett Kelley issued a statement early on Thursday saying any changes to Covid-19 protocols should be negotiated and that “workers deserve a voice in their working conditions,” while encouraging workers to get vaccinated voluntarily.
Ramp up period
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that the Interagency Task Force would provide a ramp up period of around 75 days for employees to get fully vaccinated. “If a federal worker fails to comply, they will go through the standard HR process, which includes counseling, and face disciplinary action — face progressive disciplinary action,” she said.
Other than vaccine mandates for the healthcare workforces at the VA and HHS – extending to anyone that could come into contact with patients – vaccine policy for the 2.1 million person federal workforce has been limited to coaxing personnel to get vaccinated – and attest they got the vaccine – lest they face regular testing, as well as more stringent mask and social distancing requirements, something Psaki characterized as steps in a process.
Just after the FDA granted full approval for the Pfizer vaccine in August, the Defense Department mandated vaccination for all active duty military personnel – with inoculation to begin immediately for the roughly one third of uniformed personnel that had not been vaccinated at the time. That directive allowed for limited exceptions for medical or religious reasons – and similarly the new requirement for the federal workforce will allow for “exceptions as required by law.” Previous Covid infection does not count as an exception and is not an avenue to opt out.
Private sector companies in multiple fields have begun to mandate vaccination for their employees – or certain categories of personnel – in light of the full approval, since some were reluctant to take such action for an emergency-approval vaccine, and the White House is hoping the new requirements will be a model for what employers throughout the country, including government at the state and local level, should be doing.