WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Thursday announced civilian federal employees and onsite contractors must be vaccinated or undergo once or twice a week COVID-19 testingand socially distance from other employees and visitors along with mandatory mask wearing, just two months after the president celebrated guidelines that fully vaccinated people can go maskless.
“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’ve ever acquired COVID, socially distance and generally not be allowed to travel for work.”
“Likewise, today I’m directing my administration to take steps to apply similar standards to all federal contractors,” Biden said. “You want to do business with the federal government, get your workers vaccinated.”
Thursday’s White House announcement is the latest initiative attempting to beat back rising COVID-19 transmission rates and reverse stalling vaccination rates in the U.S.
Biden also directed the Department of Defense to look at requiring vaccinations for members of the military, asked state and local governments to offer $100 as an incentive for people to get the vaccine and announced small- and medium-sized businesses will be reimbursed for offering employees paid leave to get their family members vaccinated.
“We all want our lives to get back to normal, and fully vaccinated workplaces will make that happen more quickly, more successfully,” Biden said.
Biden’s directive comes after the Department of Veteran Affairs on Monday announced it will require health care professionals get vaccinated and after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday recommended fully vaccinated individuals wear masks indoors in areas with high transmission. The VA is the first federal agency to require vaccinations.
The CDC also recommended all teachers, staff, students and visitors from kindergarten to 12th grade wear masks inside schools, irrespective of vaccination status.
At the state level, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday state employees must be vaccinated by Labor Day or face weekly testing. California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday unveiled a vaccine verification program for all state and health care employees.
On Capitol Hill, the Attending Physician of the US Congress issued new guidance Tuesday requiring House members to wear masks in “indoor spaces.”
Private sector businesses such as Netflix, Google and Facebook are joining the growing list of employers who require employees be vaccinated.
Here’s what we know.
Why the reversal on masks?
The reversal on indoor mask wearing comes as COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have increased to over 2,000 per week, according to a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins University data. For the first time in more than three months, the U.S. is also averaging more than 60,000 COVID-19 cases per day.
The CDC is especially concerned about the extremely contagious delta variant, which is spreading through the nation, largely impacting the unvaccinated.
“The delta variant is showing every day its willingness to outsmart us and be an opportunist,” CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a briefing Tuesday.
“In rare occasions, some vaccinated people infected with the delta variant after vaccination may be contagious and spread the virus to others. … This new science is worrisome and unfortunately warrants an update to our recommendations.”
Can an employer require employees to get the vaccine?
In May, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidelines that said employers could require on-site employees be vaccinated so long as they don’t violate civil rights and disability laws. The Department of Justice on Monday announced federal law doesn’t prevent federal agencies or private businesses from requiring vaccinations.
Dan Meyer, a managing partner at Tully Rinckey PLLC who specializes in federal employment law, said there are grounds to challenge Biden’s vaccine directive but thinks that will likely not happen.
“The president has a lot of discretion, especially as it comes to health and safety. But it’s not where I think this is going,” Meyer said.
“I think where this is going is that they will implement the vaccine requirements,” he said. Meyer thinks Biden’s vaccine directive will be similar to other employment laws that protect employees.
Meyer specifically cited the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits federal agencies from discriminating against a person if they have a defined disability in the workplace.
“If you are recovering from a disability —and there’s a very broad definition for that— then the government has to make accommodations for you,” Meyer said.
“This is also the same process of the reasonable accommodation process that civilian companies are held to under the Americans with Disability Act,” he said.
For employees who chose not to get the COVID-19 vaccine, Meyer said they will need to start documenting their reasons for declining vaccination. “They have to prepare ahead of time. They can’t sit around and wait until they get a notice that they are being removed,” Meyer said.
How are unions reacting?
The American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union, said it would engage in collective bargaining over Biden’s directive and encouraged its members to get vaccinated.
“We expect that the particulars of any changes to working conditions, including those related to COVID-19 vaccines and associated protocols, be properly negotiated with our bargaining units prior to implementation,” AFGE President Everett Kelley said in a statement.
“While we await specific proposals and anticipate the negotiation process, we encourage all of our members who are able to take advantage of the opportunity to get vaccinated and help our nation put an end to this deadly pandemic.”
The International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers “fully supports” Biden’s decision to require vaccines for federal employees, said President Paul Shearon.
“This country is in the middle of a terrible pandemic, more than 627,000 American are dead, and we don’t want any more of our members dying,” Shearon said in a statement.
The union, which represents thousands of federal workers, doesn’t “think either our members or their mission should be placed at risk by those who have been hesitant to take a shot.”
“This is not an easy decision President Biden made, but it’s the right one for our members and for the nation.”
The American Postal Workers Union, which represents over 220,000 postal workers, denounced the vaccine directive in a statement.
“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 union said.