Biden’s plan to require all federal employees and contractors to get the COVID vaccine or submit to regular testing, wear masks and socially distance is already getting pushback from those who question the constitutional legality and how mandates would be enforced.
As anticipated, President Biden on Thursday announced all civilian federal employees and contractors will be required to show proof of vaccination against COVID, or submit to regular COVID testing, wear masks and socially distance.
Biden also called on state and local governments to use COVID relief funds to give $100 to people who get vaccinated.
In a statement released by the White House, the administration said the new rules were issued because of the Delta variant, and because unvaccinated people present a problem to themselves, their families and co-workers.
“Every federal government employee will be asked to attest to their vaccination status,” Biden said. “Anyone who does not attest or is not vaccinated will be required to mask no matter where they work; test one or two times a week to see if … they have acquired COVID, socially distance and generally will not be allowed to travel for work,” he said.
Biden directed his administration to apply similar standards to all federal contractors. “If you want to do business with the federal government, get your workers vaccinated,” he said.
Biden urged other state and local governments and private employers to enforce a similar vaccination requirement for their workplace. He said the U.S. Department of Justice Department (DOJ) has “made it clear” it is legal to do so.
Biden was referring to a DOJ statement published online earlier this week, concluding federal law doesn’t prohibit public agencies and private businesses from requiring COVID vaccines — even though the vaccines have so far only received Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) — not full licensing — from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
According to The New York Times, the federal government employs more than 4 million Americans, all of whom will need to attest to being fully vaccinated in order to avoid wearing a mask on the job, regardless of where in the country they work, and comply with screening tests once or twice a week.
The total number of employees is close to 10 million when contract workers and grant workers are included.
Biden also directed the U.S. Department of Defense to study how and when to add the COVID vaccine to the list of required vaccinations for all members of the military.
“As a large employer, the largest in this country, who cares about individuals who keep the government running, we have an obligation to be good stewards of the workforce and ensure their health and their safety,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters.
The Department of Veterans Affairs became the first federal agency to issue a mandate, announcing Monday it will require 115,000 of its frontline healthcare workers to be vaccinated against COVID in the next two months.
“I know it’s exhausting to think we’re still in this fight and I know that we hoped this would be a simple, straight-forward line without problems or new challenges,” Biden said. “But that isn’t real life.”
Road ahead for federal mandates not guaranteed to be smooth
The Associated Press (AP) today said Biden’s plan “is likely to force uncomfortable questions” and added, “Right now, there’s a lack of clear answers.”
According to the AP:
“There are many reasons why translating Biden’s order to the workplace may not go smoothly. Government agencies tend to have their own unique cultures, and their missions run the gamut. Doctors at the National Institutes of Health are probably already vaccinated, but some law enforcement agents may be wary of getting a shot not yet fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration.”
Continual testing raises other issues about who will pay, and if testing will continue if someone refuses to be vaccinated and is not eligible for medical or religious exemptions, the AP said.
The AP report also raised questions about the “perennially touchy subject” of masking. How will agencies enforce a masking policy if not everyone is required to be vaccinated? Will supervisors patrol the cubicles with lists of the unvaccinated?
In one early sign the policy may not go as smoothly as planned, the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) said it opposes the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate as a condition for employment, arguing it isn’t the role of the federal government to mandate vaccines or other testing measures.
“Maintaining the health and safety of our members is of paramount importance,” the APWU said in a statement issued Wednesday. “While the APWU leadership continues to encourage postal workers to voluntarily get vaccinated, it is not the role of the federal government to mandate vaccinations for the employees we represent.”
The statement also said:
“Issues related to vaccinations and testing for COVID-19 in the workplace must be negotiated with the APWU. At this time the APWU opposes the mandating of COVID-19 vaccinations in relation to U.S. postal workers.”
The U.S. Postal Service employs 570,000 people in the U.S., according to federal data, though it isn’t clear if the Biden administration will apply the mandate to all postal service workers.