AFGE asks White House to delay federal vaccine mandate deadline for employees

The largest federal employee union has asked the White House to push back the Nov. 22 deadline that executive branch workers currently have to comply with the federal vaccine mandate.

The American Federation of Government Employees said Tuesday federal workers should have the same Jan. 4 deadline that the Biden administration recently extended for contractors to receive their vaccine doses.

In a letter to the White House, Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management, the union urged the Biden administration to harmonize federal vaccine mandate deadlines for government employees and contractors.

“While we share the administration’s goal of beating the pandemic and appreciate the vital role of vaccination in this effort, setting different compliance deadlines for employees vis-à-vis contractors is both harmful to morale and substantively unjustified,” Everett Kelley, AFGE’s national president, wrote. “Federal workers should be able to complete the holiday season without the threat of discipline looming over them.”

The Biden administration last Thursday gave federal contractors an additional four weeks to comply with the vaccine mandate, moving their deadline from Dec. 8 to Jan. 4.

Jan. 4 is the same date that private sector employers with at least 100 employees have to comply with a new emergency temporary standard from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. That standard is separate from two separate executive orders that President Joe Biden signed back in September. Those orders mandated vaccines for both federal employees and contractors.

The deadline hasn’t changed for federal employees. The Biden administration has said federal employees must be fully vaccinated by Nov. 22. Because of the two-week waiting period between the time employees receive their vaccine dose or doses, the technical deadline for federal workers to get the shot was Monday, Nov. 8.

As such, OPM has said agencies can begin a multi-step disciplinary process for employees who don’t have their shots starting Tuesday, Nov. 9.

When asked about AFGE’s request to extend the vaccination deadline for federal employees, an OMB spokesperson pointed to comments White House COVID-19 Coordinator Jeff Zients made to reporters back on Oct. 20.

Zients said the federal vaccine mandate will not cause disruptions in government services to the public, and agencies will have flexibility to enforce the requirements without impacting their operations. He also reiterated that agencies shouldn’t fire unvaccinated employees without at least providing a period of counseling and education.

“The purpose of this requirement is to protect the federal workforce,” the OMB spokesperson added. “That’s been a central goal of the Biden administration since day 1. The vast majority of the federal workforce wants to know that they’re safe in the workplace because their coworkers are vaccinated.”

AFGE described the differing deadlines for federal employees and contractors as a “double standard,” one that has caused “confusion” and “distress” for people who, in many cases, perform their work side by side.

“It is inexcusable that contractors are being given the entire holiday season to meet the mandates, while federal employees continue to be subject to the Nov. 22 deadline,” Kelley wrote. “The effect upon morale of federal employees being subject to possible discipline at this time of year cannot be overstated. Transportation security officers at the Transportation Security Administration are especially affected and dismayed by the seemingly more favorable (post-holiday) deadlines offered to contractors. Corrections officers at the Bureau of Prisons are understandably chagrined by the fact that inmates face no mandate while they must comply by Nov. 22 or face termination.”

An AFGE council representing BOP correctional officers has sued the Biden administration over the vaccine mandate. The lawsuit is pending in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

AFGE’s national office has said its position on the federal vaccine mandate, despite the lawsuit from one of its locals, hasn’t changed.

Since the Biden administration first announced a vaccine policy and later a mandate for federal employees, AFGE has consistently said it expects agencies to bargain over the requirements.

It has also encouraged its members to get vaccinated. In a message to its members in late September, AFGE said the federal vaccine mandate was legal. And in a series of frequently asked questions about the mandate, the union pointed to a 2002 case, where a federal appeals court upheld the Navy’s decision to fire two civilian employees who refused the anthrax vaccine.

The National Treasury Employees Union was the first to publicly acknowledge the president had the legal authority to issue a federal vaccine mandate for government workers. Both NTEU and the National Federation of Federal Employees didn’t immediately have a comment on Tuesday about AFGE’s request for more time.

The Biden administration has so far kept a relatively close hold on any data that might describe how agencies are progressing with the federal vaccine mandate.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, which instituted its own vaccine mandate for health care workers with an Oct. 8 deadline, had provided

During a speech at the National Press Club Tuesday, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said the department was still compiling data that describes vaccination rates for the Veterans Health Administration workforce.

He said 91% of VHA employees have provided information about their vaccination status, up from 70% two weeks ago. That figure doesn’t represent the number of VHA employees who are vaccinated.

“We need the 100% data picture so we can plan accordingly,” McDonough said. “Then we can make decisions accordingly. We will make individualized determinations in our very extensively-negotiated disciplinary process. Again, it’s an individualized, fact-based determination. At the end of that, if throughout each of these steps, an employee still refuses to get vaccinated, they’ll be separated.”

VHA has begun that disciplinary process with employees who haven’t yet shared their vaccination status with the department. The entire disciplinary process may take as long as three months, McDonough said Tuesday.

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