Washington, D.C. is the center of the universe in many ways. In an equal number of ways, it’s an utterly out-of-touch place. I recall the late former General Services Administration head, Roger Johnson, remarking to me he was going home for the weekend. He put it this way: “I’m going back to America.”
Johnson, an Orange County, California Republican appointed by President Bill Clinton, took seriously the Clinton idea that “government costs too much.” So he wasn’t too popular at GSA. There is that zeitgeist in the community of, and connected to, the federal government. And sometimes that community seems to mobilize against what it sees as rebels the way white corpuscles surround a bacterium. The same holds for so many cultural zones.
Yet even within the federal community the debate about COVID vaccination roils on in microcosm. Ditto for the mask mandate question. Hence the need for the Office of Personnel Management, acting on policy of the Biden administration, to issue finely calibrated guidance to agencies about how to deal with employees who haven’t or won’t get vaccinated. If it was dealing with a simple situation, the ongoing guidance might be simple.
I’ll get to that, but first I want to say that I’ve just returned to D.C. from America myself. Six days riding my Harley along the Blue Ridge region of Appalachia. The trip encompassed robust college towns like Lexington, Virginia; odd rural hamlets like Little Switzerland, North Carolina; and the somewhat urban (if not urbane) Asheville.
What I did not see was a section of the country ignoring COVID protocols. What I did see is a mixed bag. Given that there’s no way to discern whether an individual is vaccinated, I used masks as a surrogate for how people are dealing.
Out in America you see masked and unmasked. For instance, among chain hotels adherance varies. At the high-end brand of one multi-brand chain, even the valet standing outside in the drive-up circle was masked. (He chuckled that I’d have to self-park my motorcycle.) At a rural unit of one of the chain’s downscale brands right off highway I-81, amid a flea circus of trailer trucks, mostly unmasked staff. True also of the nearby chain restaurant. In the studios of Asheville’s arts district, strict masking. In the upscale distillery (where I had my best martini ever) staff stayed masked. Strict masking also in the 1930s cottage motor court off the Blue Ridge Parkway including the knotty pine dining room of its main building. People mostly wore masks into restaurants and took them off to order and eat.
Back to D.C. The fact is, employers have the legal right to require vaccines and adherence to whatever reasonable protocols they deem necessary. Federal policy is therefore not some weird outlier but rather matches what many corporations are doing.
Some part of me wants to shout, Good grief, just get the vaccine people! Another part asks, what business is it of mine? And then, well it is my business if someone brings COVID into my or anyone’s space. I think many people harbor conflicting thoughts. We all know unvaccinated people circulating around that seem impervious. We also know vaccinated people who get it anyway, even if mildly.
And a disclosure, if you’re wondering: I got my second dose in late March, and Saturday I head to CVS for my booster.
So if the OPM guidance, as expressed by the Safer Federal Workforce group, has been coming in dribs and drabs, and if it gives agency managers a lot of leeway and a lot of questions, well that’s understandable. We’re dealing with a workforce of more than two million people. You don’t need me to tell you the breadth of jobs and physical situations the term “federal workplace” encompasses. The guidance can’t be total fuzz, though. Accepting that offices will eventually need some semblance of normal operations, guidance does allow for the ultimate sanction.
On the religion-based exemption question, OPM is also treading carefully. People of certain faiths eschew medicine as most people understand it. OPM, though, says a religious claim won’t automatically generate an exemption. And if you claim political objection or that you don’t like needles, forget about it. Equally open to interpretation are what sorts of medical exemption claims agencies will accept. Here again, the variables make a succinct policy impossible. Some feds work with clinical trial patients at the NIH at a campus with the population of a small city. Others traipse through the windy woods of the nation’s forests.
Open-ended as the policies may appear, at the back of them is the government’s discretion to sanction people who don’t get vaccinated, up to dismissal. Yet in a government whose agencies regularly claim they have too few people and that it’s difficult to hire new ones, can you imaging mass firings actually taking place?
If there’s an upshot to all of this uncertainty, it’ll be this: No mass return to the office until next year. In the meantime, let’s give OPM and the Safe Workforce Task Force a little slack as they continue to develop policy. Like love, it’s complicated.