Agencies should delay toughest penalties for unvaccinated federal employees, Biden administration says

The Biden administration is encouraging agencies to delay the toughest punishments — which might include unpaid suspensions and possible firings — for federal employees who remain unvaccinated until after the holiday season.

Agencies have made “tremendous progress” with the federal vaccine mandate, the administration said Monday, and urged them to consider extending the first phase of a progressive disciplinary process for unvaccinated employees through December.

Around 92% of federal employees were at least partially vaccinated by the administration’s deadline last week, the White House has said. In total, some 96.5% of the workforce had complied with the federal vaccine mandate, meaning they were either partially or fully vaccinated or had a medical or religious exception pending or approved.

For those who were still unvaccinated, the Biden administration had said agencies would move on to the first of a three-part progressive disciplinary process. That process is supposed to start with education and counseling, move to a 14-day unpaid suspension and end with removal, if necessary.

In a Monday morning email to members of the President’s Management Council, Jason Miller, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, and Kiran Ahuja, director of the Office of Personnel Management, explained the administration’s rationale for giving agencies more time to provide education and counseling.

“We encourage your agencies to continue with robust education and counseling efforts through this holiday season as the first step in an enforcement process, with no subsequent enforcement actions, beyond that education and counseling and, if warranted, a letter of reprimand, for most employees who have not yet complied with the vaccination requirement until the new calendar year begins in January,” the email, which Federal News Network obtained, reads.

OMB confirmed the email to Federal News Network. The administration will, apparently, give agencies some discretion to enforce the federal vaccine mandate requirements.

“We understand that your agencies may need to act on enforcement sooner for a limited number of employees, such as where there are additional or compounding performance or workplace safety issues under consideration, but in general, consistency across government in further enforcement of the vaccine requirement after the start of the new calendar year is desired,” Miller and Ahuja wrote. “We believe this approach is the best one to achieving our goal of getting the federal workforce vaccinated.”

In a series of frequently asked questions updated Monday, the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force said the operational needs of agencies allow them “expedite or extend the enforcement process.”

“For example, agencies may consider the length of the education and counseling period or following an initial brief suspension (14 days or less) with a longer second suspension (15 days or more), rather than moving from a first suspension to proposal of removal,” the task force guidance reads.

Agencies can start the enforcement process for employees who haven’t submitted the appropriate documentation showing that they’re fully vaccinated or for those who don’t have an exception or extension request pending with their organization, the task force said.

For employees who submit proof that they’re beginning to comply with the federal vaccine mandate at any step of the disciplinary process, agencies should effectively pause the enforcement action to give the employee a chance to become fully vaccinated, which OPM has said previously.

“We have been clear that the goal of the federal employee vaccination requirement is to protect federal workers, not to punish them,” Miller and Ahuja said. “Last week’s deadline was not an endpoint or a cliff. We are continuing to see more and more federal employees getting their shots.”

Compliance among agencies varied according to data OMB provided last week. The U.S. Agency for International Development had the highest percentage, 97.8%, of its employees with at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. The Agriculture Department had the lowest, with 86.1% of the USDA workforce being at least partially vaccinated.

The American Federation of Government Employees applauded the administration’s decision on Monday. The union had previously asked the Biden administration to delay the vaccination deadline for employees to mid-January. Contractors have until Jan. 18 to comply with their own federal vaccine mandate.

“Once again, President Biden has demonstrated his commitment to hearing from rank-and-file federal employees through their unions and responding to workers’ concerns,” Everett Kelley, the AFGE national president, said in a statement. “While we applaud the new policy that defers suspensions and removals, we continue to encourage all our members who are able to obtain one of the FDA-approved anti-COVID vaccines as soon as they possibly can.”

The National Treasury Employees Union said it had discussed the possibility of providing more flexibility in the upcoming disciplinary process with the Biden administration. Tony Reardon, the union’s national president, said he was pleased to see the administration follow through.

“We encourage employees to use this time to reach out to a medical professional as well,” he said in a statement. “It is helpful to remember, as the guidance does, that the goal is to protect the health of federal workers, and not to punish them. NTEU will continue to urge the employees we represent to get the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible, if they are able.”

The Federal Managers Association also welcomed the administration’s decision, especially given the upcoming government shutdown deadline. The current temporary funding stop-gap expires Friday.

“This is already a stressful time, given the possibility of another government shutdown at the end of this week,” FMA National President Craig Carter said Monday. “We are thankful that federal employees will not have to worry about losing their jobs just as the holiday season arrives. FMA agrees with the rationale that it will allow more time for more federal employees to receive their vaccinations, or apply for valid medical or religious exemptions. This was the right decision to make at this time.”

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