New guidance on vaccines and COVID testing for feds and contractors

The White House-led Safer Federal Workforce Taskforce issued additional question and answer style guidance on Friday addressing how exactly the recently-released vaccination and testing requirements will be carried out.

shutterstock ID: 147037244  White House on deep blue sky background  By Andrea Izzotti

The White House-led Safer Federal Workforce Taskforce issued additional question and answer style guidance on Friday addressing how exactly the recently-released vaccination and testing requirements will be carried out.

The new information reflects policies laid down last week requiring feds to either be vaccinated or abide by strict masking and distancing protocols. This marked a reverse of previous task force guidance instructing agencies not to inquire about their employees' vaccination status.

"Given the different safety protocols for individuals who are fully vaccinated and those who are not fully vaccinated, agencies need to ask about the vaccination status of Federal employees and onsite contractors," the website states.

Federal employee requirements

Employees will give that information via attestation, and anyone who lies or doesn't abide by safety protocols will be subject to discipline.

Agencies should be asking all feds about their vaccination status, even those who are working remotely or teleworking, the guidance states. It doesn't clarify if unvaccinated feds who are not coming into the office will have to go through testing requirements mandated for unvaccinated individuals and those who don't provide their status, though.

However, if agencies already have vaccination information about any of their employees, such as by being the vaccine provider to that employee, they don't need to ask those feds again, it says.

The new taskforce FAQ includes the form that agencies should use, which is being called a "Certification of Vaccination form."

Feds will have three options: "I am fully vaccinated," "I am not yet fully vaccinated," "I have not yet been vaccinated," and "I decline to respond." Employees will be able to submit a new form if their status changes.

Agencies shouldn't ask feds to give additional documentation to prove their status, unless it is part of an agency investigation after receiving a "good faith allegation that strongly suggests that an employee made a false statement" on the form.

A fed who claims to have been vaccinated but is exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms is not a reason to ask for documentation, the FAQ states.

The new guidance also addresses privacy concerns.

Agencies should only give vaccination information to "appropriate agency officials who have a need to know to ensure effective implementation of the safety protocols, which, in many cases, will include the supervisor level."

Agencies can use their own systems to store these forms under existing Office of Personnel Management guidelines for employee medical files, according to the guidance.

Contractors and visitor requirements

Although President Joe Biden has noted his intention to include contractors in these new requirements – and onsite contractors are already included – the FAQ specifically notes that "agencies should not be collecting and maintaining contractor and visitor disclosures at this time unless an agency has a system of records notice that covers its collection of this information."

However, the FAQ does address how agencies should deal with onsite contractors: "Agencies should provide onsite contractors with the Certification of Vaccination form when they enter a Federal building or Federally controlled indoor worksite."

Unless they have an existing records system for this information, they'll direct onsite contractors to keep the completed form with them. They might potentially be asked to show the form when entering a federal building or a "federally controlled indoor worksite," or to show it "to a federal employee who oversees their work."

As far as unvaccinated onsite contractors, they'll either need to be enrolled into the agency's own testing program, or show proof of a negative COVID-19 taken within three days before entering that building.

Agencies are also allowed to work with their contractors to meet these new requirements, the guidance states, "such as by having the company certify that all onsite contractors are fully vaccinated."

The certification and safety requirements are similar for visitors to federal buildings, who will be given a form to complete when they enter the building or in advance of arrival. Agencies won't store the information for now, unless they have a system of records notice that can cover this information, so they'll have to keep that form with them while they're onsite.

Notably, feds visiting other agencies will be treated as visitors and have to fill out a new form, the guidance states.

These requirements don't, however, apply to visitors coming to a federal building to apply for federal benefits.

Labor Relations

The taskforce also released new FAQs addressing labor management.

Agencies are working to implement updated "Agency Model Safety Principles" issued by the task force along with the new requirements on vaccines and testing last week.

There "may be" collective bargaining obligations for "impact and implementation" of these new safety principles and CDC guidelines, including over the vaccination requirements, the guidance states, but post-implementation bargaining may be used "where appropriate."

"Since agencies need to act quickly due to the COVID-19 emergency and to protect the health and safety of onsite employees, contractors, and visitors, agencies are strongly encouraged to begin communicating with the appropriate union representatives as soon as possible and otherwise satisfy any applicable collective bargaining obligations under the law at the earliest opportunity, including on a post-implementation basis where appropriate," it states.

For feds still working remotely or via telework, agencies should bargain before they return to the worksite, but if they have to come into work before that's done, they'll need to comply with the guidance, the FAQ states.

The new FAQ specifically encourages agencies to share their draft plans with their unions "in order to provide a meaningful opportunity for the unions to consult."

Agencies are able to authorize more "official time," or federal time spent on union work, for consultation and negotiation over what is currently authorized in their contract, the guidance says.

Finally, if an existing contract with a union has more strict safety standards than CDC standards, agencies will need to "honor" the collective bargaining agreements.