“The health and safety of the federal workforce, and the health and safety of members of the public with whom they interact, are foundational to the efficiency of the civil service,” the executive order, released Thursday evening, reads. “I have determined that ensuring the health and safety of the federal workforce and the efficiency of the civil service requires immediate action to protect the federal workforce and individuals interacting with the federal workforce.”
Biden signed a second order extending the requirement to federal contractors.
“If you want to work with the federal government and do business with us, get vaccinated,” Biden said Thursday evening in a speech announcing his plans. “If you want to do business with the federal government, vaccinate your workforce.”
The order mandating vaccines for the federal workforce is brief. It simply requires executive branch agencies to stand up a program requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for all federal employees. The order specifically excluded the Government Accountability Office, which is part of the legislative branch.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said federal employees will have 75 days to get vaccinated. Agencies will provide counseling to those who fail to comply, and employees may face “progressive discipline,” in accordance with the government’s traditional personnel policies, she added.
Federal employees will have the opportunity to request a medical or religious accommodation, Psaki added.
This is a change from the administration’s current policy, which asked federal employees to attest to their vaccination status. Those who are unvaccinated or decline to attest to their status were supposed to face weekly testing requirements, though it’s unclear how many agencies have physically established testing regimes since the Biden administration made its original announcement near the end of July.
The Safer Federal Workforce Task Force will provide guidance on the new policy within seven days, according to the order.
The task force last week told agencies they should not ask employees to provide proof of vaccination, but Psaki said Thursday individual agencies will choose whether to ask for documentation.
The departments of Defense, Health and Human Services, and Veterans Affairs have already required vaccinations for many of their employees. The Veterans Health Administration is asking employees to submit proof of vaccination if they received their doses outside of a VA facility.
Those agencies, including the Indian Health Service and the National Institutes of Health, will continue to implement their vaccine policies as planned for roughly 2.5 million employees and servicemembers, the source said.
The Pentagon added the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of required immunizations for service members at the end of August, just days after the Food and Drug Administration gave the Pfizer vaccine full approval.
Employees at VHA have until Oct. 8 to get vaccinated or request a medical or religious accommodation, the agency told Federal News Network last week. Those who fail to comply may face disciplinary action after the October deadline.
Second order requires new contract requirements
The order requiring vaccines for federal contractors is more complex. It directs agencies to include a specific clause in their federal contracts and “contract-like instruments,” requiring that companies comply with COVID-19 protocols from the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force.
The task force has two weeks to develop specific safety guidance for federal contractors, and the Office of Management and Budget must approve it and publish new vaccine requirements in the Federal Register.
The Federal Acquisition Regulatory Council will amend the Federal Acquisition Regulation to include these requirements in federal procurement solicitations and contracts. It’ll work with agency acquisition offices to help them comply with the order starting Oct. 8.
The new requirements apply to all federal contracts subject to the FAR, new and current. It doesn’t apply to federal grants or individual contractors who perform work outside of the United States, according to the order.
Mixed reactions from federal unions
Federal employee unions and organizations offered up mixed reactions to Biden’s new vaccine requirement.
In a statement Thursday morning, the National Treasury Employees Union acknowledged the federal government, like most employers, has the legal right to require the vaccine for federal workers.
“NTEU will monitor closely the implementation of this policy at the agencies where we represent employees to make sure that those with medical and religious exceptions are accommodated,” Tony Reardon, the union’s national president, said. “Like always, NTEU will work to eliminate the barriers to vaccination, including having agencies continue to provide employees with duty time to get vaccinated and time off to recover from any potential side effects and, as much as possible, offer vaccinations at the workplace. Additionally, we will work to ensure that employees have ample time to comply and that due process is followed.”
The American Federation of Government Employees said it strongly believes in the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines, but it wants to bargain with agencies over changes to workplace protocols.
“Put simply, workers deserve a voice in their working conditions,” Everett Kelley, AFGE national president, said Thursday afternoon in a statement. “Neither of these positions has changed. We expect to bargain over this change prior to implementation, and we urge everyone who is able to get vaccinated as soon as they can do so.”
Some agencies did begin bargaining with employee unions over the details of the previous vaccine directive — but only after the policies were announced.
The Senior Executives Association, however, said it “fully supported” the Biden administration’s decision to mandate vaccines for the federal workforce.
“By mandating their use, the federal government is leading, by setting a strong example for other organizations and industry to model,” SEA President Bob Corsi said Thursday afternoon.
The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, however, said the Biden administration’s latest policy was misguided.
“We encourage our members to seek individual medical guidance and, in most cases, get vaccinated,” FLEOA President Larry Cosme said. “However, we understand that threatening people’s livelihood and penalizing employees for making independent medical decisions is not the answer. We will continue to review the legal landscape for this order and act as appropriate to support our members and voice their concerns.”
A handful of Republican members of Congress, including Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), House Oversight and Reform Committee Ranking Member James Comer (R-Ky.) and Government Operations Subcommittee Ranking Member Jody Hice (R-Ga.), said they strongly opposed the White House’s new vaccine mandate for federal employees.