The Washington Post

Federal vaccine holdouts aren’t facing job losses just yet

- BY ERIC YODER AND LISA REIN eric.yoder@washpost.com lisa.rein@washpost.com

Federal employees who have not complied with the coronaviru­s vaccine mandate will not face aggressive discipline, including unpaid suspension­s or firing, until at least early next year, according to guidance the White House sent to unions.

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) said Monday that administra­tion officials have told the union that agencies for now will continue offering counseling and education to the roughly 3.5 percent of workers who have yet to receive a vaccinatio­n or request an exemption.

Agencies will pursue only “education and counseling efforts through this holiday season as the first step in an enforcemen­t process” and take no further actions beyond a possible letter of reprimand “for most employees who have not yet complied with the vaccinatio­n requiremen­t until the new calendar year begins in January,” according to the White House message to agencies.

The guidance comes as concerns over the globally spreading omicron variant led President Biden on Monday to again urge Americans to get vaccinatio­ns and boosters. As of last week, 92 percent of the roughly 3.5 million people in the federal workforce and the military had received at least one shot, while 4.5 percent had requested exemptions.

The White House disputed that the guidance represents a change in when employees could face more-serious consequenc­es for ignoring the mandate. Federal workers faced an initial deadline last week to show that they had gotten at least one shot or had requested an exemption.

“Nothing has changed on our deadline or our approach to the federal employee vaccine requiremen­t,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday, noting that counseling has “long been our approach and our policy.”

Union leaders said they supported giving unvaccinat­ed workers leeway to get shots.

“The administra­tion has done the right thing by listening to federal workers,” AFGE President Everett Kelley said in a statement.

Attorneys who represent federal employees said it is common for agencies to hold off on disciplina­ry actions of all kinds around the holidays. They also said that the administra­tion, having said all along that it hoped to avoid firing people for failure to comply with the mandate, would probably keep incentiviz­ing vaccinatio­ns rather than punishing employees who resist.

“I’m not going to be surprised if agencies slow-roll this process, if only to slow-roll the associated headaches that come with it,” said Debra D’agostino, a founding partner at the Federal Practice Group in Washington. She said that even early next year, supervisor­s of unvaccinat­ed employees are not likely to impose harsh discipline in every case.

“Setting aside the issue of the legality of the mandate itself, [some] employees who have been teleworkin­g full time since March 2020 are going to have credible arguments that removing them is not in the interest of the efficiency of the service or is overly harsh,” she said.

Thus far, no agency has set a time frame for when it plans to step up more-aggressive discipline against unvaccinat­ed employees without exemptions. Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough has said, for example, that the process at his agency could take months.

For now, unvaccinat­ed employees who have not requested or received an exemption face a process that starts with counseling about vaccines and the potential career consequenc­es of not complying with the mandate.

That is not required of employees who have pending requests for exemptions, but in the meantime they must follow tighter distancing and mask-wearing standards and get regular testing when in the workplace. Those requiremen­ts will continue to apply to them long-term if their request is granted; if it is denied, they will have two weeks to begin a course of vaccinatio­n or else go through the disciplina­ry process.

At least three lawsuits are pending against the mandate, with initial rulings in two. In each, a judge refused to temporaril­y block the order, saying employees have not yet experience­d harm to their careers for not being vaccinated.

The federal employee mandate is not affected by legal challenges against separate vaccinatio­n requiremen­ts for certain privatesec­tor workers. A mandate for companies with more than 100 employees is on hold pending an appeal of a court decision against it. On Monday, a federal judge in Missouri temporaril­y blocked a separate mandate for Medicarean­d Medicaid-certified healthcare providers and suppliers in 10 states.

 ?? MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? The Federal Triangle Metro station in D.C., shown last December. About 92 percent of the federal workforce has gotten a covid shot.
MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASHINGTON POST The Federal Triangle Metro station in D.C., shown last December. About 92 percent of the federal workforce has gotten a covid shot.

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