Federal agencies prepare to act against unvaccinated employees

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(The Hill) – Federal government agencies are preparing to take escalating action against unvaccinated employees in order to implement President Biden’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate for federal workers.

Some agencies plan to send letters warning of possible suspensions to employees who have not complied with the mandate. Many are also prepared to fire employees who break the rule, although such moves come later.

Compliance is high across the federal government, and agencies say they don’t expect suspensions or layoffs to cause disruption.

In November, the White House asked the agencies to suspend tougher penalties until the end of the new year and focus on education and counseling for those who had not complied with the mandate. Now, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) says agencies can move forward with tougher measures at their discretion.

“Agencies continue to move the process forward, including taking progressive disciplinary action if necessary,” an OMB spokesperson told The Hill.

The COVID-19 vaccine mandate for federal workers is the cornerstone of Biden’s response to the coronavirus. The deadline for federal workers to comply with the mandate was Nov. 24, when 92% of the 3.5 million employees working for the federal government had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

The current rate of federal-wide compliance with the mandate is unclear, as some agencies did not provide up-to-date data when reached by The Hill, but several agencies said they made progress since the November deadline by counseling employees who had not received their injections.

The Treasury, Transportation, and Agriculture departments, as well as the General Services Administration, Social Security Administration, and Nuclear Regulatory Commission should all begin suspending employees who fail to comply with the mandate. in the coming weeks.

The agencies have not set specific deadlines for notifying employees of the suspensions, but experts expect them to act relatively quickly given that four months have passed since Biden announced the rule.

The federal government employs a sprawling workforce, and vaccination policy is impacting the bulk of its 3.5 million workers. Health experts see the federal mandate as powerful, especially since Biden’s other vaccine mandates, for big business and health care workers, are tied to legal proceedings.

On Friday, conservative members of the Supreme Court appeared skeptical of Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine or testing mandate for private sector companies with 100 or more employees and questioned whether the administration had the legal authority to politics.

“It’s very important because the federal workforce is huge and stretches across the country and not just in Washington, D.C. I also think it sets the tone for cities and states in the to do for their own public service employees and ultimately to encourage private sector enterprises. to do it,” said Lawrence Gostin, professor of public health law at Georgetown University.

“If the federal government can show that this can be implemented seamlessly without a lot of backsliding and without a lot of people leaving the workforce, that will encourage cities and states as well as the private sector to follow suit. “, said Gostin.

While the vast majority of employees across government have complied with the mandate, the most recent data suggests that at least a few thousand employees have not been vaccinated or have not submitted medical exemptions. or valid religious policy.

This week, the White House and the Department of Education had both achieved full compliance, the first known agencies to do so.

At the Department of Education, approximately 3,900 employees have received at least one dose of the vaccine or have an exception pending or approved. The department also has a 97% vaccination rate, which includes only employees vaccinated with the first and second dose.

Some agencies also managed to convince unvaccinated workers to get vaccinated towards the end of the year. The Social Security Administration, for example, had achieved a compliance rate of 98.9% and a vaccination rate of 91.5 on Friday, compared to a compliance rate of 95% and a vaccination rate of 87.7% in November. .

A Department of Transportation spokesperson also said the department “has seen more compliance following the education and counseling stages completed in December and the next steps in the enforcement process will involve letters warning of brief suspensions for those which are still not compliant”.

The ministry says 99.9% of its approximately 52,500 employees are immunized with at least one dose or have an exception or extension request pending or approved, meaning only about 50 employees are not in compliance with the mandate.

Other agencies have larger numbers of unvaccinated workers who don’t comply with Biden’s mandate.

Just under 98% of the Department of Agriculture’s 75,955 permanent staff are complying with the mandate, meaning around 1,587 staff face potentially more drastic advice and action.

With a 99% compliance rate, nearly 960 of 95,800 Treasury Department employees are unvaccinated and have no pending or approved exceptions.

When contacted by The Hill, several agencies insisted that they do not expect suspensions or layoffs due to the vaccine mandate to negatively impact critical government operations.

Gostin said it would take good planning to make sure federal jobs aren’t disrupted by suspensions or layoffs, suggesting agencies implement phased suspensions or layoffs and start hiring new workers to fill vacancies. He also said the government needs to put in place a strong vaccine verification system.

“There is a lot of experience within the federal government to ensure that operations continue even in the face of workforce disruptions,” said Gostin, who highlighted preparations for government shutdowns and weathering. “The important thing is to make sure the disruption is minimal.”

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