Fedweek

Photo: Frank Fell Media / Shutterstock Image: Frank Fell Media/Shutterstock.com

The Biden administration has said that a court injunction against its Coronavirus vaccination mandate for federal employees threatens to once again set back agency “reentry” plans to bring more teleworking employees back to onsite work and for more often.

“Numerous federal agencies are currently in a maximum-telework posture and have developed detailed plans to bring employees back into a physical workplace. Leaving the injunction in place delays reentry as agencies must revise the plans to account for more unvaccinated employees,” it said.

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“It also forces agencies to develop and implement alternative COVID-19 safety protocols, potentially renegotiate labor agreements regarding such protocols, and divert scarce resources away from core mission-related activities—all to the detriment of taxpayers and the public at large,” it said.

That argument — which the Justice Department made in asking the Fifth Circuit appeals court to lift the injunction — came as several agencies have announced more definite plans for reentry. Most recently, the USDA announced recalls of many managerial employees later this month, to be followed by a broader recall in late March to early April. That’s essentially the same schedule that the SSA earlier had announced for its field offices.

Agencies had planned to start carrying similar plans starting last fall, only to have to delay them because of several spikes in infections nationwide.

In a statement accompanying the request to lift the injunction—which also had been included in a similar request to the judge who issued it—deputy OMB director for management Jason Miller said those plans are based on the assumption that all employees would be vaccinated except for those granted exceptions for religious or medical reasons.

Miller also raised cost concerns, noting that about 2 percent of employees are not vaccinated and have not asked for exemptions and that under the government’s safety protocols such persons are to be tested weekly if not more often when working onsite.

“Testing 2% of the total covered federal workforce weekly could cost taxpayers on the order of $11 million to $22 million each month, or $33 million to $65 million each quarter. The longer these individuals remain unvaccinated and employed in federal agencies, the more taxpayers costs will increase,” he said.

“Should the percentage of unvaccinated employees increase over time as new hires come aboard, as is expected while the injunction remains in place, agency testing expenses will increase accordingly. These increased screening testing expenses will be on top of the cost of screening testing for those employees with an approved exception,” he said.

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Other effects would include higher rates of absenteeism as more employees are either infected or must quarantine because they have an actual or suspected exposure, he said.

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