Federal employees must attest to vaccination or submit to testing, per new Biden policy

The Biden administration on Thursday said it will require all federal employees and onsite contractors to attest their vaccination status or be subject to masking, social distancing and COVID-19 testing requirements.

“Anyone who does not attest to being fully vaccinated will be required to wear a mask on the job no matter their geographic location, physically distance from all other employees and visitors, comply with a weekly or twice weekly screening testing requirement and be subject to restrictions on official travel,” the White House said in a fact sheet on the new policy, which it released Thursday afternoon.

In addition, President Joe Biden will direct the Defense Department to look into how and when it will add the COVID-19 vaccines to its list of required vaccinations for military members.

“These rules should not only apply to federal workers and onsite contractors,” the White House said. “President Biden is directing his team to take steps to apply similar standards to all federal contractors. The administration will encourage employers across the private sector to follow this strong model.”

Employees and contractors must sign an attestation confirming vaccination, the Biden administration said.

“Given the different safety protocols for individuals who are fully vaccinated and those who are not fully vaccinated, agencies need to ask about the vaccination status of federal employees and onsite contractors,” the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force said in new COVID-19 workplace safety guidance, which it also released Thursday afternoon. “Employees and onsite contractors must attest to the truthfulness of the response they provide. If an employee or onsite contractor chooses not to provide a response, they will be treated as not fully vaccinated for the purposes of these protocols.”

This development is a significant policy shift for the Biden administration, which, until this week, has strayed away from providing stringent vaccine requirements for the federal workforce.

The Department of Veterans Affairs on Monday announced a vaccine mandate for its health care workers.

Unlike VA health care workers, federal employees at other agencies will have more leeway, though the Biden administration’s latest mask requirements make things more complicated.

Fully-vaccinated federal employees will not need to socially distance or participate in their agency’s weekly testing program, the administration said.

But given the latest mask requirements, fully-vaccinated employees and contractors must continue to wear a face covering inside federal facilities where transmission rates are “substantial or high.”

In areas where COVID-19 transmission rates are low, vaccinated employees and contractors will not need to wear a mask.

Unvaccinated employees must wear a mask inside federal buildings regardless of the location or the transmission level, the administration said.

“It is a choice that employees will be able to make,” Karine Jean-Pierre, deputy White House press secretary, said Thursday afternoon before the president’s announcement. “Because largely, unvaccinated people continue to spread the virus, and until we have more people who are vaccinated and are curbing the spread, there needs to be proper protocols to keep Americans safe. As a large employer, the largest in this country who cares about the individuals who keep the government running, we have an obligation to be good stewards of the workforce and ensure their health and their safety. We’re taking action to protect the federal workforce so that they can continue to execute on the hard and important work of government.”

These new policies apply to visitors as well, the administration’s task force said.

Agencies should ask visitors to attest to their vaccination status. Those who aren’t vaccinated or choose not to disclose their status must show proof of a negative COVID-19 test from no later than three days prior to entering a government building or participating in an in-person, federally-hosted meeting, event or conference.

But there are exceptions.

“The requirement to provide information on vaccination status and a negative COVID-19 test does not apply to members of the public entering a federal building or federal land to obtain a public service or benefit,” the task force said. “If they are not fully vaccinated, these visitors must comply with all relevant CDC guidance, including wearing a mask and physically distancing from other people.”

The Biden administration didn’t specify exactly how agencies should collect information about the vaccination status of their employees, contractors and visitors, other than complying with federal laws and requirements under both the Privacy Act and the Paperwork Reduction Act.

Collective bargaining obligations may also apply, the task force said.

“In the vast majority of cases, employees who are not vaccinated due to disability or religious practices or beliefs will be able to follow the safety protocols for not fully vaccinated individuals as a reasonable accommodation,” the task force said. “In the rare case where they cannot, or where it is otherwise required by law, other reasonable accommodations should be made, barring undue hardship.”

The task force did not give agencies a timeline for requiring employees and contractors to attest to their vaccination status. It did not give agencies a timeline for establishing a testing process for those who are not vaccinated or refuse to attest their vaccination status.

In addition, the task force did not explain what consequences might exist for employees or contractors who refuse to get vaccinated or comply with COVID-19 testing requirements. Federal employee unions have some of those questions as well.

“The National Treasury Employees Union is deeply concerned about the rising COVID infection rates and all along has encouraged the employees we represent to get vaccinated in order to protect themselves, their families, their coworkers and their communities,” Tony Reardon, the union’s national president, said in a statement. “Still, we have a lot of questions about how this policy will be implemented and how employee rights and privacy will be protected.”

The American Federation of Government Employees said it anticipated it would bargain with agencies over these new vaccine requirements.

“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,” Everett Kelley, AFGE national president, said in a statement. “Based on today’s announcement, 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.”

NTEU said it would work with OPM to address its questions — and ensure employees don’t face undue burdens or unfair treatment.

Notably, the Biden administration’s new vaccine policy simply imposes the requirement on federal workers and onsite contractors; it does not delineate between frontline and remote employees.

Telework and remote work policies for agencies remain in place, the administration said in its guidance.

Much of the federal workforce is still teleworking, and while some agencies have set tentative reentry dates for employees to begin returning to the office, their reentry and remote work plans are still in the works.

“We believe that the dangerous surge of the delta variant of the coronavirus that prompted this new vaccine policy should also delay the end of the maximum telework policy that has been so successful these last 16 months,” Reardon said. “Although agencies continue to work on their plans for returning employees to federal workplaces, the effective date of that reentry should be delayed.”

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