(The Hill) – Federal government agencies are preparing to take increasingly harsh steps against unvaccinated employees in order to implement President Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine 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 don’t follow the rule, though such moves would be further down the road. The rate of compliance is high across the federal government, and agencies say they do not expect the suspensions or firings to cause disruptions.
The White House in November told agencies to hold off on harsher penalties until after the new year and to 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 stricter measures at their discretion.
“Agencies continue to move forward with the process, including taking progressive disciplinary measures as necessary,” an OMB spokesperson told The Hill.
The COVID-19 vaccine mandate for federal workers is a cornerstone of Biden’s coronavirus response. The deadline for federal workers to comply with the mandate was Nov. 24, when 92 percent 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 governmentwide compliance with the mandate is unclear because some agencies did not provide up-to-date data when reached by The Hill, but several agencies reported making progress since the November deadline by counseling employees who had not received their shots.
The departments of Treasury, Transportation, and Agriculture, as well as the General Services Administration, Social Security Administration, and Nuclear Regulatory Commission, are all expected to begin suspending employees who are not complying with the mandate in the coming weeks. Agencies have not laid out specific time frames for notifying employees of the suspensions, but experts expect them to move relatively quickly given that four months have passed since Biden announced the rule.
The federal government employs a sprawling workforce, and the vaccine policy impacts the bulk of its 3.5 million workers. Health experts view the federal mandate as powerful, especially given that Biden’s other vaccine mandates, for large businesses and health care workers, are tied up in court proceedings.
The Supreme Court’s conservative members on Friday appeared skeptical of Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine-or-test mandate for private sector businesses with 100 or more employees and questioned if the administration has the legal authority for the policy.
“It’s very important because the federal workforce is huge and it extends across the country and not just in Washington, D.C. It also I think sets the tone for cities and states to do it for their own public service workers and ultimately to encourage private sector companies to do it,” said Lawrence Gostin, a public health law professor at Georgetown University.
“If the federal government can show that this can be implemented seamlessly without a lot of pushback and without a lot of people leaving the workforce, that will be encouraging to cities and states and also the private sector to follow suit,” Gostin said.
While the vast majority of employees across the government have complied with the mandate, the most current data suggests at least a few thousand employees have not gotten the vaccine or presented a valid medical or religious exemption from the policy. As of this week, the White House and the Department of Education had both reached full compliance, the first known agencies to do so.
At the Department of Education, roughly 3,900 employees either received at least one dose of a vaccine or have a pending or approved exception. The department also has a 97 percent vaccination rate, which includes only employees who are vaccinated with the first and second dose.
Some agencies also saw success in convincing unvaccinated workers to get the shot toward the end of the year. The Social Security Administration, for instance, as of Friday had achieved a 98.9 percent compliance rate and a 91.5 vaccination rate, compared with a 95 percent compliance rate and 87.7 percent vaccination rate as of November.
A Transportation Department spokesperson also said that the department “saw more compliance following education and counseling steps completed in December and next steps of the enforcement process will involve letters warning of brief suspensions for those few still not in compliance.”
The department says that 99.9 percent of its roughly 52,500 employees are vaccinated with at least one dose or have a pending or approved exception or extension request, meaning only about 50 employees are not in compliance with the mandate. Other agencies have larger numbers of unvaccinated workers who aren’t complying with Biden’s mandate.
Just under 98 percent of the Department of Agriculture’s 75,955 permanent employees are complying with the mandate, meaning about 1,587 employees are facing counseling and potentially more drastic measures. With a 99 percent compliance rate, almost 960 out of 95,800 Treasury Department employees are not vaccinated and don’t have a pending or approved exception.
When reached by The Hill, multiple agencies insisted they do not expect suspensions or firings due to the vaccine mandate to adversely impact critical government operations. Gostin said it would take a fair amount of planning to ensure that federal functions are not disturbed by any suspensions or firings, suggesting that agencies implement phased suspensions or removals and begin recruiting new workers to fill any vacancies. He also said that the government needs to implement a sound vaccine verification system.
“There is a lot of experience in the federal government to make sure that operations continue even when you have workforce disruptions,” said Gostin, who pointed to preparations for government shutdowns and severe weather. “The important thing is to make sure that disruptions are minimal.”