Biden to Push Vaccines for Fed Workers 07/29 06:15
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Hoping to set a model for employers nationwide, President
Joe Biden will announce Thursday that millions of federal workers must show
proof they've received a coronavirus vaccine or submit to regular testing and
stringent social distancing, masking and travel restrictions.
An individual familiar with the president's plans, who spoke on condition of
anonymity to confirm details that had yet to be announced publicly, emphasized
that the new guidance is not a vaccine mandate for federal employees and that
those who decide not to get vaccinated aren't at risk of being fired.
The new policy amounts to a recognition by the Biden administration that the
government -- the nation's biggest employer -- must do more to boost sluggish
vaccination rates, as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations rebound, driven
largely by the spread of the more infectious delta variant.
Biden has placed the blame for the resurgence of the virus squarely on the
shoulders of those who aren't vaccinated.
"The pandemic we have now is a pandemic of the unvaccinated," Biden said
during a visit Wednesday to a truck plant in Pennsylvania, where he urged the
unvaccinated to "please, please, please, please" get a shot. A day earlier, he
mused that "if those other 100 million people got vaccinated, we'd be in a very
The administration on Wednesday was still reviewing details of the expected
guidance, and significant questions about its implementation and scope
remained. It was unclear whether the president would issue similar requirements
for the military and how federal contractors would be affected. The
administration is announcing the move now with the hope that it will give
agencies enough time to craft their own guidelines and plans for implementation
before workers return fully to the office.
The announcement is expected to come as part of broader remarks Thursday
that Biden promised would outline "the next steps in our effort to get more
The individual said the conversation around the new vaccine guidance had
been in the works for some time and was intended to provide an example for
private companies to follow as they get ready for workers to return this fall.
But it's just the latest policy shift from the administration during a week of
new coronavirus mitigation efforts, as the White House grapples with a surge in
coronavirus cases and hospitalizations nationwide driven by the delta variant
and breakthrough infections among vaccinated Americans.
On Monday, the Department of Veterans Affairs became the first federal
agency to require vaccinations, for its health workers. And on Tuesday, the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed its masking guidelines and
said that all Americans living in areas with substantial or high coronavirus
transmission rates should wear masks indoors, regardless of their vaccination
With the latest CDC data showing that Washington, D.C., is facing
substantial rates of transmission, by Wednesday reporters and staff were again
masking up at the White House.
The new guidance on vaccinations for federal employees reflects the reality
that Biden's national vaccination drive has fallen short of his goals. Public
opinion seems to have hardened around the vaccines, with a recent poll from The
Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research finding that among
American adults who have not yet received a vaccine, 35% say they probably will
not, and 45% say they definitely will not.
"Doing more of the same just will not work," said Dr. Leana Wen, a former
Baltimore health commissioner who's become a leading public health commentator
on the pandemic.
"This is the logical next step," Wen continued. "If you want to be going in
to work and interacting with other people, then you have to be sure you
wouldn't have COVID, and you can do that either by getting vaccinated or by
About 60% of American adults have been fully vaccinated. Biden missed his
goal of having 70% of adults get at least one shot by July 4. The latest figure
Federal workers and contractor employees are dispersed throughout the
nation, including many in states where vaccine skepticism runs high. New York
University public service professor Paul Light suggested the new guidance from
the Biden administration could help boost vaccination rates in states where
there's been significant resistance.
"You can't throw a stick without hitting a fed in many parts of the
country," he said.
Light noted that the government's influence goes well beyond the people it
directly employs. Federal contractors and grant recipients will have to weigh
how they'll adjust to vaccination requirements from Washington.
"If the federal government were to say that everybody who works for the
government directly or indirectly must be vaccinated, that's a massive
footprint," Light said.
He estimated that the federal government directly employs 2.2 million
full-time civil servants, plus 1.4 million active-duty military personnel and
about 500,000 workers in the U.S. Postal Service. Private contractor employees
working on federal jobs number about 5 million, and there are 1.8 million other
people employed under federal grants.
While the administration hopes the new guidance will boost vaccination
rates, having Biden wade squarely into the middle of the ongoing political
debate surrounding vaccines could backfire if it further fuels GOP criticism
and distrust of the vaccine among the president's detractors.
The AP-NORC poll found that views on vaccinations divide sharply along party
lines, with Republicans far more likely than Democrats to say they have not
been vaccinated and definitely or probably won't be, 43% to 10%.
Indeed, South Carolina GOP Rep. Ralph Norman, who has resisted the new mask
requirements on Capitol Hill, hinted at the fight to come over the new
"To require individuals to provide proof of vaccination would be a massive
intrusion on the doctor-patient relationship and the privacy of the
individual," he said in a statement.
The Biden administration may also have to grapple with legal challenges to
the latest guidelines.
The federal workplace is governed by layers of rules and regulations, so
private employers as well as state and local governments will be looking at the
White House vaccination policy to signal how far they can go without triggering
resistance from employees or even lawsuits.
But while the Justice Department and the federal Equal Employment
Opportunity Commission have both said no federal laws prevent businesses from
requiring vaccinations as a condition of employment, litigation is certain to
follow workplace mandates, said Sharon Perley Masling, an employment lawyer who
leads the COVID-19 task force at Morgan Lewis.
"It's a really challenging issue for employers," Masling said. "We have seen
employers explore a whole range of options, from encouraging vaccinations, to
incentivizing vaccinations, to mandating vaccinations for new hires, or for
Among examples from major companies, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines are
requiring new employees to show proof of vaccination. Goldman Sachs is
requiring its employees to disclose their vaccination status but is not
mandating they be vaccinated.
If an employer does set a hard requirement, employees can ask for an
exemption for medical or religious reasons under federal civil rights laws.
According to EEOC rules, the employer must provide "reasonable accommodation
that does not pose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer's
business." Some accommodations could include masking up at work, social
distancing, working a modified shift, regular COVID-19 testing or the option to
work remotely, or even offering a reassignment.