Fedweek

The second-largest employer of federal workers, the VA, has provided a glimpse of the course that may be ahead government-wide under the Coronavirus mandate, indicating that large numbers of employees have sought exceptions and that the agency will be open to granting them—but only up to a point.

The VA has served as a bellwether since it first announced a mandate for some of its employees in late July, more than a month ahead of the general mandate set by President Biden. The VA’s initial step affected its employees most involved in direct health care, and several weeks later it extended the requirement to all employees in its health branch, which accounts for about 380,000 of its 420,000 employees. Those employees were subject to an earlier deadline than other federal employees.

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The VA also has been one of the most forthcoming agencies, regularly reporting on numbers of employees who are fully vaccinated and in having top officials publicly commenting.

In a press conference last week, Secretary Denis McDonough said that the department has loaded into a database information on the status of 94 percent of its employees. He said that while specifics numbers are not yet available, the requests for exceptions are trending much higher than those under a mandate last year for employees in the medical branch to receive the regular flu vaccine — where the request rate was 5.6 percent. Even that percentage would amount to more than 20,000 employees.

However, he did not provide a time frame for making decisions on those requests. Under administration policy, agencies are not to begin the disciplinary sequence — of counseling, followed by unpaid suspensions and then potentially firing — while requests are under consideration and for the meantime those employees are to be subject to stricter safety procedures. Those protocols also are to apply moving forward for employees who are granted exceptions.

He said the department will be open to granting religious exceptions but “nevertheless, there are certain areas in the administration of health care . . . where it’s possible that the concentration of religious exceptions reaches a level so that we can’t assure the veteran patients that we’ve done everything we can to assure their safety. If that’s the case, we will have no choice but to deny the exception.”

Meanwhile, he said, “We are in the midst of employing our disciplinary process, the first step of which is counseling. That counseling is increasing, obviously, our response rate.” Also, the department is “planning in the event that we have to relieve people in certain sensitive areas so that we have capacity across the system where we can deploy people to cover the shortages,” he said.

He repeated past estimates that the entire process for unvaccinated employees who do receive an exception could take about three months. He said he was unaware of any employees having been fired yet and that the VA hasn’t started “the process of actually sitting down with someone and saying we’ve determined that this is not an available option for you.”

“The goal of this is vaccination. The goal is not relieving employees,” he said.

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