As the deadline for feds to either get vaccinated or apply for an exception came on Nov. 22, the White House instructed federal agencies to provide counseling and extra time, and to put off enforcement until early January.
With less than a month before the end-of-year holidays, feds who are either unsure about or just slow to finish up with their COVID vaccine, recently received a present: more time to comply with their COVID vaccine mandate deadline. The Biden administration, at least briefly, appeared to promise a delay in enforcement.
“This week’s deadline wasn’t an end point.” the White House said in a statement, regarding the original requirement that feds be vaccinated by Nov. 22. “For those employees who are not yet in compliance, agencies are beginning a period of education and counseling, followed by additional enforcement steps, consistent with guidance from the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force and the Office of Personnel Management.”
With these words, the president’s team signaled it was allotting a little extra time before they move to pointed enforcement of the president’s Sept. 9 vaccination mandate. The White House noted that by the deadline over 92% of feds were on track to comply, having received at least one shot. The portion of feds who were in compliance rose to 96% if you included those who had applied for an exception, the allowable alternative.
Over the past couple of months, major federal employee unions had stepped up their calls to the administration to delay its vaccine mandate for feds, complaining that the Nov. 22 deadline actually presented a “double standard,” one that unfairly held feds to faster compliance and a higher standard than other workers. Most glaringly, fed advocates noted, federal contractors had been given until early January to comply—originally Jan. 4.
Due to court action, the contractor deadline is now effectively on hold. In any case, enforcement of the federal mandate has been pushed back to Jan. 4, to match that original contractor deadline. Further, several state challenges to the federal mandate are being mounted, and as of early December it is impossible to predict the impact of these cases.
“By the [original Nov. 22] deadline for the vaccination requirement, we will have already achieved 95 percent compliance across the federal government, and 90 percent of those employees will have had at least one shot,” as Jen Psaki, the White House Press Secretary, characterized the situation just in advance of the deadline.
Asked if the administration was concerned about the small but significant portion of feds who remained non-compliant—and whether this might disrupt the functioning of federal agencies, Psaki emphasized the administration’s confidence in its workforce.
“We have no concern about that,” she said. “[It’s] 95 percent compliance … [There] are exemptions. So, as we’ve said a number of times, we don’t see this as a cliff.”
Limited exceptions to the federal employee vaccination mandate apply, as outlined on the Safer Federal Workforce web page—”based on a medical condition … or based on religion,” with the precise requirements and implementation of these handled by each department or agency.
During the early months of the Biden presidency, the White House telegraphed that it would avoid imposing mandates on most feds or the general population. There was great excitement and hope for an early end or near-end to the pandemic, as the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines all showed strong efficacy and mass acceptance.
But then along came “delta,” the currently dominant strain. Delta spread quickly in recent months, and coupled with a slowdown in the vaccine campaign led to renewed regional spikes in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths, trends that continue to this day. Ultimately, and perhaps not surprisingly, a raft of vaccination and vaccination-or-testing mandates ensued.
In the coming weeks, the White House, its top medical experts and feds themselves will have to re-evaluate workplace safety procedures based on an even more fluid and unpredictable COVID situation—one that factors in the growing spread of the new and little-understood “omicron” variant.
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