VHA begins disciplinary process for employees who haven’t responded to vaccine mandate

More employees at the Veterans Health Administration have sought medical or religious exceptions to the department’s recent COVID-19 vaccine mandate than they have for last year’s flu vaccine policy.

The department is still parsing through the employee data, but VA Secretary Denis McDonough said the agency is seeing a “bigger number” than it did for recent policies requiring employees to receive their annual flu shot.

The department will take each employee’s accommodation request seriously, McDonough said, and VA won’t question the legitimacy of their religious exception.

But if the department receives too many requests for an exception, VA may have to make some tough choices.

“We will of course try to accommodate the religious exception for an employee who has sought the religious exception from being vaccinated,” he told reporters Wednesday at a monthly press briefing. “But if we’re not able to operate certain health care capabilities or provide certain services — for example if too many employees claim an exemption — this would present an undue hardship to us and ultimately to the veteran. So in that case when we’re faced with an undue hardship by a lack of a vaccinated employee, my intention is to deny that employee the religious exception. Once we have all the necessary data, we’ve worked through the [disciplinary] process … and at the end of that process the employee still refuses to get vaccinated, they’ll be separated.”

In guidance to the broader federal workforce, the Biden administration has advised agencies to consider a variety of factors for granting vaccine accommodations, including “the basis for the claim; the nature of the employee’s job responsibilities; and the reasonably foreseeable effects on the agency’s operations, including protecting other agency employees and the public from COVID-19.”

Roughly 70% of the VHA workforce has so far submitted details to the department about their vaccination status, McDonough said.

Put another way, of VHA’s 380,000-person workforce, 266,000 employees have told the department about their vaccination status.

That doesn’t mean 70% of the VHA workforce is vaccinated and the remaining 30%, or 114,000 employees, are not, McDonough said.

VHA has begun the disciplinary process for those employees who have not yet shared their vaccination status with the department, McDonough said.

“The process starts with counseling and, if we get to it, ends with separation,” he said. “There’s a lot of steps along the way.”

McDonough said part of the counseling process will give VHA employees an additional opportunity to share their vaccination status and provide the appropriate documentation to the department.

“How many will be counseled? I just don’t have that number yet,” McDonough said. “But I know 30% of that topline number are going to be getting a visit to make sure that they get their data into the system. Our employees are required to do that.”

Under VHA’s mandate, health care employees had until Oct. 8 to either get fully vaccinated or request a medical or religious accommodation.

The broader federal workforce, which includes employees from VA’s National Cemetery Administration and Veterans Benefits Administration, is subject to a separate executive order  mandating vaccinations, which President Joe Biden signed last month.

Under that order, federal employees must be fully vaccinated by Nov. 22.

Like the Biden administration and the Office of Personnel Management have suggested, VA will use a concept known as progressive discipline to enforce the vaccine mandate.

The counseling phase may take a week or two, McDonough said.

“It could take, over the life of that disciplinary process, as long as two to three months,” he said. “It needn’t take that long, but it could take that long. My commitment to the veterans is to execute this transparently, and it’s the same commitment I’ve made to the employees. It will be executed transparently in a fact-based way, individualized to each employee’s particular situation but always with veterans’ safety at the heart of the determination.”

McDonough and the department had previously provided a variety of data describing the number of vaccinated VA employees.

Last month, the department said about 75% of VHA employees were fully vaccinated. That data was based on employee attestations, McDonough said.

“I’ve been briefing you off different types of data that we’ve had now for a couple of months,” he said. “Some of it was attestation. We now, consistent with our established policy and the president’s guidance, have a process where by employees actually upload, in a way that protects their privacy, fact of and confirmation of the vaccination. We’re just digging into that now.”

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