House Republicans raise concerns over federal vaccine mandate for employees

The top Republicans on the House Oversight and Reform Committee say they have a series of unanswered questions about the Biden administration's federal vaccine ...

Top Republicans on the House Oversight and Reform Committee have a wide variety of unanswered questions about the Biden administration’s federal vaccine mandate for employees and contractors, with the deadline to comply with the policy just weeks away.

Rep. James Comer (Ky.), the full committee’s ranking member, and Rep. Jody Hice (Ga.), the top Republican on the government operations subcommittee, described a list of concerns with the Biden administration’s federal vaccine mandate, which they detailed Wednesday in a letter to the Office of Personnel Management, General Services Administration and Office of Management and Budget.

Under the federal vaccine mandate, employees must be fully vaccinated by Nov. 22, though the date at which they must physically receive their shots in order to observe the two-week waiting period is Nov. 8.

The agencies briefed the committee earlier this month on their plans to implement and enforce the president’s federal vaccine mandate, Comer and Hice said. But they still have questions.

Namely, they’re concerned about the untold number of federal employees who may not comply with the mandate and face subsequent disciplinary action. OPM has recommended a three-step process for disciplining federal employees who aren’t vaccinated by early November. The final step suggests removing unvaccinated employees from federal service.

“OPM, OMB, and GSA believe there will be minimal employee attrition due to these mandates. They did not, however, substantiate the reasons for this belief,” Comer and Hice wrote. “If they are wrong about attrition from either category of employees, they risk significant disruption of agency missions, major adverse consequences for workers, families and businesses and the breach of an untold number of federal contracts.”

So far, few federal agencies have publicly reported vaccination rates among their employees, though some have offered anecdotal progress reports ahead of the upcoming November deadline.

CIA Director William Burns told members of the House Intelligence Committee earlier this week that 97% of career officers at the agency were fully vaccinated.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, which has its own vaccine mandate for health care professionals with earlier deadlines to comply, has reported different vaccination rates at different times. VA Secretary Denis McDonough told reporters last week the department was still compiling a full and accurate picture of vaccination rates for the Veterans Health Administration, though the agency had started the disciplinary process for the 30% of employees who hadn’t yet responded to the mandate.

VHA has, however, seen vaccination rates rise among its employees since it first announced the mandate back in July.

Comer and Hice said they’re also concerned about the administration’s handling of medical and religious exceptions to the federal vaccine mandate.

The Biden administration hasn’t detailed exactly what kinds of medical or religious reasons might grant an employee an exception to the federal vaccine mandate, but it has provided guidance to agencies on how they might handle the accommodation process.

Notably, the administration has said agencies, when considering a medical or religious exception request, should think about the basis of an employee’s claim, their responsibilities on the job and the impact on their operations.

In their letter, Comer and Hice said the administration “explicitly intend[s] to enforce compliance with the president’s vaccine mandates with as few exemptions as possible.”

“OPM’s, OMB’s, and GSA’s insistence on allowing extremely few exemptions is also troubling,” the members wrote. “For example, as represented to our staff, the Biden administration may intend to allow medically-related exemptions only for those already proven to be allergic to available vaccines and those under other exemptions yet to be specified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

Neither GSA nor OMB responded to a request for comment about Comer and Hice’s letter. OPM declined to comment.

The two members also raised concerns about possible legal challenges to the vaccine mandate and questioned the administration’s position on employees who have already had COVID-19.

Citing CDC recommendations, the administration has said the federal vaccine mandate applies to everyone, including those employees who have had a prior COVID-19 infection.

To help them better understand the administration’s thinking on medical or religious accommodations, Comer and Hice want OPM, GSA and OMB to share all communications and documents about possible exemptions.

They also want the Biden administration to share the number of fully vaccinated and unvaccinated federal workers by Nov. 10, two days after the deadline that employees have to physically receive their vaccine doses.

And they’re looking for data tracking employee terminations or disciplinary actions related to the federal vaccine mandate, as well as any documents or communication from the agencies discussing possible challenges to workforce attrition, plans for storing employee information with third-party vendors and testing options for the workforce.

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