With several deadlines now passed and others just ahead, the Coronavirus vaccination mandate will soon have direct impacts on individual federal employees and on the workplace as a whole.
To meet the deadline of being “fully vaccinated” by November 22 under the general policy—meaning being past the required waiting period—employees who have not yet received at least the first dose of one of the two-dose vaccines would have to get the one-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine by November 8. Those who have received the first dose of one of the other two vaccines have until that date to receive the second dose.
Agencies may begin a disciplinary process as early as November 9 for employees who have not received the second, or only, shot by then, except for employees who have been granted an exception on medical or religious grounds or who have one under consideration. That process to start with five days of counseling about vaccines and the mandate, then typically a suspension of less than 14 days, and then potentially disciplinary action up to and including firing.
One department that could serve as a bellwether is the VA, which earlier had issued its own mandate for its Veterans Health Administration employees and whose final deadlines are now passed. The VA reports that more than 20,000 additional employees have been vaccinated since then, bringing that total above 323,000, although not specifying how many of those are in the VHA.
The VHA accounts for about 380,000 employees of the department’s 420,000 total, meaning that at least tens of thousands in that component did not meet the deadline. However, there has been no public announcement on how many have requested exceptions or whether a disciplinary process has begun for others.
One issue being watched is how aggressive the VA will be in moving to potentially fire so many employees, especially since it has long-standing and well-documented problems in hiring and retaining for patient care positions. That same issue applies regarding the general mandate government-wide—again especially regarding positions with recruitment and retention troubles, ranging from cybersecurity to prison guards.
Also still to be seen is whether there will be significant numbers of resignations—or retirements of those already eligible but who have been continuing to work—among employees who oppose the mandate. There have been reports of some employees already doing so, but many others seem to be taking a wait and see attitude, at least as long as the prospect of an exception is still open.
Agencies have been told that they can set their own deadlines for employees to request exceptions, which are to be considered under standard processes for considering workplace accommodations under civil rights and disabilities laws. That process could take time—especially if agencies receive a flood of such requests—since it involves multiple offices and multiple layers of review within the agency.
While such requests are under consideration, employees would have to comply with the stricter safety protocols for unvaccinated persons when onsite; if a request is granted those same rules still would apply long-term. If a request is denied, the employee would have to begin a course of vaccination within two weeks or else face the disciplinary sequence.
Guidance Issued on Leave Entitlements for Vaccination (August 2021)