President Biden at the White House last month. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
President Biden is expected to sign an executive order Thursday that would require all federal employees to get vaccinated against the coronavirus — without an exception for those who choose to be regularly tested — in an effort to create a model he hopes state governments and private companies will adopt.
The new vaccine requirement will apply not just to the roughly 2.1 million federal employees but also to the millions of contractors that do business with the government. It follows a policy announced by the Pentagon in August making vaccinations mandatory for the military.
Unlike a requirement for federal workers Biden announced earlier this summer, the executive order will no longer allow regular testing to serve as a substitute for vaccination, according to a person familiar with the plans who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity. White House press secretary Jen Psaki, speaking ahead of Biden’s remarks on Thursday, said federal workers will have roughly 75 days to be fully vaccinated. If employees do not comply, they will undergo the standard disciplinary process for federal workers, she said. There will be exemptions from the mandate for people with disabilities, or those who decline for religious reasons.
“We would like to be a model to what we think other businesses and organizations should do around the country,” Psaki said.
Coronavirus: Get the latest news The policy comes as the country grapples with the highly contagious delta variant, which has sent cases surging to more than 150,000 a day and is causing more than 1,500 daily deaths. The delta variant is more than twice as transmissible as previous strains of the virus and is able to infect those who are vaccinated, though at far lower rates than the unvaccinated and typically prompting far less severe illness. Federal health officials and experts have repeatedly stressed that vaccinations are the only way the United States will be able to bring cases down and eventually resume some level of normalcy. Beyond making millions of Americans subject to the new rules, the president has made clear he wants to set an example, creating the political and social space for state and local government officials to follow suit and for large corporations to do the same. Some local authorities have already begun taking similar steps. The Los Angeles County school district is considering a proposal that would mandate vaccinations for those 12 and up to be able to attend school in person as anxieties mount about school reopenings. CNN first reported the executive order.
Several large businesses, including Walmart, McDonald’s, and Delta Air Lines, followed with vaccine mandates of their own shortly after Biden announced the policy in late July that would require federal workers to get a vaccination or be subject to testing twice a week. At the time, the White House cast the policy as a bold step that would allow federal agencies to safely resume operations in the office and in person. Those found to be lying about their status were to face discipline or possible dismissal. But in the month and a half since that order, the delta variant has presented a major challenge to efforts to get the pandemic under control. The political landscape has also appeared to shift — vaccinations started ticking back up after stagnating for several weeks, with many hesitant Americans driven by fear of the delta variant’s lethality or compelled to get shots because of workplace mandates. The Food and Drug Administration also granted the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine full approval, making it easier for the government and businesses to impose mandates. The agency is expected to grant full approval to vaccines from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson in the coming months.
Biden has stopped short of using the power of the federal government to force states and businesses to put mandates in place, instead opting to lead by example. Still, opposition to mandates has hardened among Republican governors such as Florida’s Ron DeSantis and Texas’s Greg Abbott.
Significant questions remain about the implementation of Biden’s new order. The earlier policy, which allowed testing as an alternative to vaccinations, is only now being rolled out after it took weeks for the administration to come up with guidance for managers. Issues arose, including how supervisors could keep rosters of their employees’ status and how they should address those who refused to provide information on their vaccination or testing status.
It is unclear what percentage of federal employees have not been vaccinated, and the White House declined to provide figures on Thursday. Psaki said individual federal agencies keep track of vaccination statistics for their respective workforces.
Unions that represent federal employees demanded that management bargain over the conditions of the policy. And many federal employees in states with low vaccination rates said they would continue to refuse the shots, potentially risking discipline or firing. Thursday’s executive order raises similar issues that could delay the rollout. While it is clear the administration can make vaccinations a condition of employment, unions will probably want to bargain over how long employees will have before they must get immunized, what evidence they will need to prove their status, and what kind of administrative leave they will receive to get vaccinated. Enacting such procedures for the nation’s largest employer will be complicated. In the meantime, hopes have dimmed that federal agencies will be able to bring their staff back to the office this fall, raising new concerns about government services that require face-to-face interaction with the public, from Social Security benefits to tax questions.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, told its employees this week that the agency would remain in “maximum telework status” through the end of the year.