Some fed unions hesitant on WH vaccine policy

Unions offer mixed reactions to new CDC-spurred White House policy that puts more pressure on feds to get vaccinated.

With Delta variant COVID raging across the country, the Biden administration July 29 announced federal agencies must require vaccination for on-site employees and contractors—or as alternatives, mandatory masking, repeated testing and other hurdles. 

The move came just after the CDC reinstated stronger masking recommendations—advising fully vaccinated people to wear masks indoors in regions of “substantial or high” transmission—and urgently advising the unvaccinated to get the shots. 

Now comes the follow-on news: Reaction to the new policy from feds and their advocates—and that’s been mixed. Some federal employee unions, notably the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers (IFPTE), immediately embraced the White House announcement. But others—while voicing support for the goals of the policy—are pushing back, insisting management must negotiate vaccination mandates with unions. 

The toughest fed feedback against the White House plan came in a statement from the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA). Despite the White House permitting (albeit not easy) substitute options, the group criticized the blueprint as, in essence, “forcing people to undertake a medical procedure.” 

"As an association representing those men and women charged with protecting the Constitutional rights of all Americans, including the right to privacy and choice,” Larry Cosme, FLEOA’s president, began, “we are concerned by any move that would mandate the COVID-19 vaccine among federal employees.” 

"FLEOA fully supports individuals who voluntarily choose to be vaccinated, agree that it is safe and the most effective means of combatting the pandemic, and encourage our members to be vaccinated,” Cosme continued. "However, forcing people to undertake a medical procedure is not the American way and is a clear civil rights violation no matter how proponents may seek to justify it.” 

The American Postal Workers Union (APWU)—which has consistently spotlighted the dangers of the COVID pandemic to its hundreds of thousands of frontline workers—nonetheless like FLEOA shot back, advising government leaders that “it is not the role of the federal government” to issue such an order, and that management must bargain such an all-encompassing move with employees. 

“Issues related to vaccinations and testing for COVID-19 in the workplace must be negotiated with the APWU,” the organization stated. “At this time the APWU opposes the mandating of COVID-19 vaccinations in relation to U.S. postal workers.”

Some other unions offered a more muted, if still skeptical, response. The National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), representing more than 150,000 employees across multiple agencies, reacted that they did not view the announcement, with its promised alternatives and implementation still TBD, as a “mandate.” 

“[We] have a lot of questions about how this policy will be implemented and how employee rights and privacy will be protected,” NTEU wrote in an emailed response. “Our understanding is that the president’s proposal is not a vaccine mandate.” 

NTEU said it will “monitor closely” the situation. The organization said it might support the policy—if it’s effected after negotiations and with adequate safeguards, especially regarding privacy. 

“This approach appears to establish a process for employees to voluntarily disclose their vaccination status,” NTEU said. “For employees who wish to keep that information confidential or choose to remain unvaccinated, a testing protocol will be established.” 

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents 700,000-plus feds, responded in a similarly guarded vein. 

“We expect that the particulars of any changes to working conditions, including those related to COVID-19 vaccines and associated protocols, be properly negotiated with our bargaining units prior to implementation,” the union said in a statement

“Based on today’s announcement,” AFGE continued, “it is our understanding that under President Biden’s proposal the vast majority of federal employees would not have to be vaccinated as a condition of employment, but that those who choose not to receive the vaccine may face certain restrictions.” 

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