Task force tells agencies how to handle court injunction on vaccine mandate

Last week’s court injunction that blocked the Biden administration’s vaccine requirement for federal employees will put a temporary halt to disciplinary actions in federal agencies. But it won’t be of much help to feds who’d already been disciplined or fired for refusing the vaccine prior to last Friday.

That’s according to new guidance the administration’s Safer Federal Workforce Task Force issued Monday. The four-page document answers some basic questions on exactly how agencies should deal...

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Last week’s court injunction that blocked the Biden administration’s vaccine requirement for federal employees will put a temporary halt to disciplinary actions in federal agencies. But it won’t be of much help to feds who’d already been disciplined or fired for refusing the vaccine prior to last Friday.

That’s according to new guidance the administration’s Safer Federal Workforce Task Force issued Monday. The four-page document answers some basic questions on exactly how agencies should deal with the federal employee mandate now that a Texas judge has temporarily barred its implementation and enforcement.

Among the nuances, workers who’ve been suspended for failing to comply need to have their suspensions lifted, and new proposals to fire or suspend employees need to be “held in abeyance” for as long as the injunction is in place, the task force said. But agencies don’t need to reverse other disciplinary procedures that have already taken full effect.

“For example, agencies do not need to repeal, rescind, or revoke letters of education and counseling, letters of reprimand, or proposals of suspensions, which may be stored in employee official personnel folders or other agency files,” according to the guidance. “In addition, agencies do not need to reinstate employees who have been terminated because of non-compliance with the COVID-19 vaccination requirement pursuant to E.O. 14043. Agencies should temporarily halt any active suspensions as of Jan. 21, 2022, and should restore those employees to pay status.”

And agencies can still ask employees for proof of their vaccination status, as long as they don’t punish them for being unvaccinated. They can, however, use that information to implement “other safety protocols,” like setting rules for social distancing, testing, travel and quarantine.

But as a general matter, agencies shouldn’t take any steps to enforce the mandate for as long as the injunction is in place. The task force also said any references to the vaccine requirement should be removed from job postings, and agencies should post specific notices on websites where they list job openings making clear that the mandate isn’t being enforced for now. The government’s main recruiting portal, USAJobs.gov, was updated with a prominent notice to that effect on Monday.

Agencies are also being told to hold off on processing any requests for medical or religious exemptions. The task force said they should not ask employees for any more information on their religious or medical accommodation requests for now. If new requests come in, agencies should accept them, but shouldn’t take any steps to act on them, the task force said.

Also on Monday, the government gave formal notice that it is appealing Judge Jeffrey Brown’s ruling to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The move was expected, as Jen Psaki, the White House Press Secretary, said on Friday that the administration believes the federal employee mandate is on firm legal footing. However, resuming enforcement of the mandate would appear to have a relatively small effect in relation to the total federal civilian workforce. Ninety-eight percent of employees had already been vaccinated by last week, Psaki said.

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