Federal employee COVID-19 vaccine mandates: At the VA and beyond

President Biden has ordered all unvaccinated federal workers and onsite contractors to mask and socially distance at work and to undergo regular testing.

Employees across the broad spectrum of federal workplaces sat up and took note on July 26, 2021. On that day, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced that all health care workers for the agency must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination within eight weeks or they would lose their jobs.

Three days later, President Biden imposed a similar mandate across the entire federal workforce, but with less drastic outcomes for noncompliance.

The VA directive

VA officials are concerned for the safety of the veterans they serve. The agency will provide paid time off to get vaccinated and recover from side effects.

In early July 2021, the VA said that about 70% of VA employees had been fully vaccinated, varying widely by location, according to the Military Times.

The highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus is largely driving this new policy. The media is widely reporting that almost everyone hospitalized with and dying from severe COVID-19 from the Delta variant is unvaccinated.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough wants veterans to know the agency is serious about protecting them and VA staff from the virus, presumably from Delta-fueled breakthrough infections.

Congressionally chartered veterans’ advocacy organization American Veterans (AMVETS) supports the VA measure. Several prominent medical associations including the American Medical Association (AMA) endorse the idea of requiring vaccination for all medical workers, public or private.

The president is expanding the vaccine mandate to all federal employees

On July 29, 2021, President Biden ordered that all federal employees and onsite contractors show proof of vaccination or face other requirements. Unlike the VA’s, this mandate does not result in job loss for noncompliance. Instead, it orders that unvaccinated federal workers wear masks and socially distance on the job as well as undergo COVID-19 testing once or twice per week. They also will have restrictions placed on their official travel assignments.

The president said that this new mandate will affect more than 4 million employees and contractors, reports NPR.

Opposition

Many Americans oppose mandatory vaccinations and that certainly includes some federal employees. Some opponents assert that mandated vaccinations violate individual rights and freedoms. Others are hesitant because the vaccines currently have only emergency Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval, and the full official stamp of approval is not on the horizon any time soon. Some people believe it is not the role of government to tell people to get vaccinated and that it should be an individual choice.

On July 6, 2021, the Department of Justice (DOJ) released a legal opinion that requiring vaccination as a condition of public or private employment is lawful despite the vaccines not yet having full FDA approval.

We will watch the rollouts of these new policies closely to understand their impact on federal employees.