Fedweek

Even just a 4.5 percent rate for the federal workforce would translate into more than 90,000 such requests. Image: monte_a/Shutterstock.com

Federal employees who have requested to be excepted from the Coronavirus vaccine mandate for medical or religious reasons are understandably anxious to know the outcome of their request. There are no set policies but the large number of such requests and the process agencies are to use suggest that in many cases the wait might be a long one.

Data released last week by OMB showed that among federal employees and military personnel, who are under a similar mandate, 4.5 percent have asked for an exception. The data weren’t broken out for each group, but other indications are that the rate of requests is relatively low in the military—the Air Force, for example, has reported less than 2 percent among Airmen—suggesting the percentage in the federal workforce is higher than 4.5.

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Even just a 4.5 percent rate for the federal workforce would translate into more than 90,000 such requests, however. Those requests are to go through a system for accommodations under disabilities or civil rights laws that typically involves requests for special office equipment or a change in work schedule in order to observe a religious holiday.

Says administration guidance: “Determining whether an exception is legally required will include consideration of factors such as the basis for the claim; the nature of the employee’s job responsibilities; and the reasonably foreseeable effects on the agency’s operations, including protecting other agency employees and the public from COVID-19. Because such assessments will be fact- and context-dependent, agencies are encouraged to consult their offices of general counsel with questions related to assessing and implementing any such requested accommodations.”

The percentages—and therefore time before a decision is made—further differ by agency. On the upper end: 10.2 percent of the workforce at the VA, 9.5 at Agriculture, 9.1 at SBA, 9 at Transportation, and 8.3 at OPM. On the lower end: 1.3 at State and USAID, 2.4 at HHS and NSF, and 3.2 at Education and EPA.

Requests for exceptions on medical grounds are considered the more straight-forward since they require a doctor’s certification that the person has a condition such as an allergy to vaccines.

Employees requesting religious exceptions, in contrast, must explain how getting vaccinated would “substantially burden your religious exercise or conflict with your sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances,” in the words of the model form for those requests.

The VA for example has said that it will treat requests for religious exceptions more as “declarations” than as requests, although adding that it may deny them by citing operational needs. There have been reports of agencies initially denying such requests but holding off on starting the counseling/suspension/firing sequence for the meantime by asking the employees for fuller information.

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