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What You Need to Know About the New Federal Employee Vaccine Mandate

By Lauren Girardin

On Sept. 9, President Biden announced a new COVID-19 Action Plan called “The Path Out of the Pandemic” to save lives, keep schools open and safe, and protect the economy. Part of the “comprehensive national strategy” lays out steps for vaccinating the unvaccinated — including a mandate for federal employees and contractors to get fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

An executive order requires federal employees to be fully vaccinated, eliminating the option for them to take weekly COVID-19 tests, and another executive order will extend the vaccine mandate to most federal contractors. In the days since releasing the plan, the Biden administration has begun updating its Safer Federal Workforce vaccinations guidance with details for enforcing vaccine requirements and limited exceptions, handling visitors at federal buildings, contractor vaccinations and more. The Pentagon has also issued vaccination requirements for Defense Department service members.

While this clarifying guidance is helpful and more is on the way, there are plenty of persistent rumors, myths and misinformation about the new federal employee vaccine mandate. Part of the challenge for agencies will be enforcing the new guidelines while navigating limited exceptions. Let’s look at some of the questions we’ve heard from federal workers. (Disclaimer: The information in this article is not intended as legal advice. Consult a lawyer if you need legal advice.)

When is the deadline to get vaccinated?

Because it takes time for the vaccine to help develop protective antibodies, individuals need to get their last vaccine dose at least two weeks before the deadline that applies to them.

Federal employees of executive agencies, including civilian military employees, must be fully vaccinated by Nov. 22, 2021. Depending on the type of vaccine, that means employees must receive their single-shot or final dose by Nov. 8. People hired for a federal job with a start date after Nov. 22 must be fully vaccinated before their start date, “except in limited circumstances where a reasonable accommodation is legally required,” according to the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force.

Vaccination requirements apply to all federal employees, whether they are onsite, teleworking, or working remotely. The rules for federal contractors are more complex and still evolving, and will be explained in additional Safer Federal Workforce vaccinations guidance expected in mid-October.

Employees of certain federal agencies have different deadlines. The Veterans Affairs Department mandated that Title 38 VA health care professionals provide proof of vaccination by Sept. 20, and later extended this mandate to more VA employees, volunteers and contractors, giving them until Oct. 8. Many Indian Health Service personnel must be vaccinated by Oct. 1, and some U.S. Health and Human Services Department employees at the National Institutes of Health and Commissioned Corps must meet other deadlines. Vaccination deadlines for non-civilian military service members vary by branch and active-duty status.

Will the government confirm my vaccination status?

If you’re a federal employee, under the new executive orders, you are required to provide proof of vaccination to your agency employer, regardless of whether you already had COVID-19. You will also have to certify under penalty of perjury that the vaccination documentation you submit is true and correct. The required documentation is explained in the Safer Federal Workforce vaccinations guidance.

If you want to claim a legally required exception to the vaccination requirement, such as a medical reason or sincerely held religious belief, you need to make a request for what’s called reasonable accommodation. The Biden administration said it will issue more guidance about these limited exceptions soon.

What if I refuse to get vaccinated?

If you’re a federal employee and refuse to get vaccinated or to provide proof of vaccination, you will be disciplined and then, ultimately, can be fired for not complying with this directive. You won’t be placed on paid leave while your agency takes the steps necessary to fire you. You will have to work until you’re terminated.

Active-duty service members who refuse to get vaccinated could be disciplined, removed from assignments, reprimanded, relieved of duty, or discharged. The consequences vary depending on the military branch and department, rank, and commission.

What happens if I lie about being vaccinated?

There are potentially severe consequences to making false statements to your agency about your vaccination status or if you misrepresent your need for an exception to the vaccination requirement. You could face disciplinary action and possible termination. If you perjure yourself on any federal forms or if you provide fake proof of vaccination, you could potentially lose your security clearance and have to deal with criminal charges, fines and even prison.

Are Congress, the federal courts, and USPS exempt from the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate?

It’s not accurate to say that Congress, the federal courts, and the United States Postal Service (USPS) have been given any sort of exemption from this particular set of regulations. Rather, the Biden administration cannot generally issue employment rules for those workforces.

The Biden administration can issue rules for federal employees in the executive branch and civilians in the military, but not for employees of the legislative branch (Congress), judicial branch (federal courts), or USPS (which usually is “independent of federal personnel actions”).

The Biden administration has said USPS must follow OSHA vaccination and testing requirements — though the details are being wrangled over.

What about employees of local and state governments?

Many state and local governments and school districts will likely need to follow the large employer vaccination and weekly testing requirements if they are in 26 states and two U.S. territories that are opted into OSHA enforcing workplace standards.

Could there be a wider vaccine mandate? According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, “The federal government’s authority to institute a general vaccine mandate is unclear, and has not yet been tested in the courts, though it is likely limited at best.” That said, the Biden administration is probably looking closely at all its options for combatting COVID-19.

Isn’t it a HIPAA violation for my employer to require me to disclose my vaccination status?

No. It is not a HIPAA violation for your employer to ask you for your vaccination status or to provide proof of vaccination. For the most part, HIPAA, also known as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, only applies to healthcare providers (such as doctors and nurses), health plans, and healthcare clearinghouses.

Won’t people quit their federal jobs because of the vaccine mandate?

Employees who choose to quit the federal workforce or avoid applying for federal government jobs may find it increasingly difficult to get hired elsewhere and stay employed if they refuse to get vaccinated.

Beyond the federal workforce, President Biden’s COVID-19 Action Plan comes with a host of requirements for other employers. Many hospitals and other healthcare settings participating in Medicare and Medicaid will have to mandate employee vaccination. Large employers with 100 or more employees under the jurisdiction of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) must also mandate vaccination or weekly testing.

Even before these new regulations, a growing number of employers in both the public and private sectors had begun requiring their employees to get vaccinated. Vaccine mandates are also popping up in other facets of life. It’s becoming increasingly common in many areas of the country to have to show proof of vaccination to enter businesses, eat in restaurants, watch a play, attend a concert, or attend a wedding or party.

There will certainly be federal employees who will quit and say it was because of the vaccine mandate. Although that may be true for some, others may have been on the brink of retirement or switching jobs, and the vaccine mandate just gave them the last nudge they needed to leave.

Isn’t it unconstitutional or illegal for the government to make its employees get vaccinated?

In general, employers have the legal authority to mandate employee vaccinations. Think of it this way: Your employer, even if it’s the federal government, can require all sorts of things as a condition of employment. You can be required to wear pants in the office. Many teachers need to get a tuberculosis test. Some federal employees are required to get an annual flu vaccine. The military has a long list of mandatory vaccines for service members. You have the option to refuse a condition of employment, but then you may no longer be qualified to hold that job.

That said, experts are debating the legality of parts of the Biden administration’s executive order. There will undoubtedly be pushback on the federal employee vaccine mandate. But there are signs that court battles could be perfunctory or few. Some federal employee unions are advocating for vaccine mandates to be part of collective bargaining with others declining to legally challenge the executive order.

Lauren Girardin is a marketing and communications consultant, storyteller, and freelance writer based in San Francisco. She helps organizations engage their communities and tell their stories. Her website is laurengirardin.com and you can connect with her on Twitter at @girardinl.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

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