Both supporters and opponents of the Coronavirus vaccine mandate expect it to increase turnover among federal employees, although it is hard to say how large that increase will be and how much of it will be involuntary versus voluntary.
Based on just partial reports from several agencies, many tens of thousands of employees, and potentially hundreds of thousands, likely were not vaccinated by the November 8 deadline. That sets the stage for a disciplinary process that can now begin and could lead—theoretically, at least—to firing in each case.
The number could be reduced, though, by the granting of requests for exceptions on medical or religious grounds or by employees moving to become vaccinated before a firing would be effective—which still could be some time off. Weighing exception requests could consume weeks or more, and the disciplinary guidance calls for a sequence that could last several months: about a week of counseling, then about a two-week unpaid suspension and then a notice and reply period—typically at least 30 days and often longer—before the final agency action.
But even with a much-reduced number, the result could be the largest mass firing of federal employees since the early 1980s when more than 10,000 air traffic controllers were fired for an illegal strike. About 10,000-12,000 employees are fired for performance or conduct reasons annually, although some others resign in the face of firing so they don’t have it on their records.
Judging how much turnover is due to the mandate will be complicated by the fact that late in the year is the peak period for federal employees to retire, in part due to the ability to cash in more annual leave than could be carried into the new leave year if they continued working.
However, some say they already have resigned or retired due to the mandate—or have committed to doing so—while some others have said they intend to do so if they do not receive an exception. Employees with a pending request are not to be subject to discipline for the meantime, although they must adhere to stricter safety protocols while onsite. For unvaccinated employees without an exception, an agency is to suspend the disciplinary process if they employee begins a course of vaccination and then cancel it once the employee is fully vaccinated.
Some Republican members of Congress have been raising more frequent and more vocal concerns about the prospects of firing of large numbers of employees where the government already has trouble filling positions—including medical care, prison security, transportation security, cyber security and intelligence work. They also argue that the administration’s policies regarding exceptions, particularly on religious grounds, are too restrictive.
The administration position is that it is following well-established standards under disabilities and civil rights laws which obligate employers to make reasonable accommodations in the workplace for medical or religious reasons unless that would place an undue hardship on the employer. The only accommodation mentioned in its guidance is allowing employees eligible for an exception to continue working but subject to the stricter protocols and testing while working onsite.