Details on discipline emerge as contractor vaccination deadline looms

Federal contracting firms will decide for themselves on how to manage employees who decline COVID-19 vaccinations but agencies can restrict unvaccinated workers from federal facilities.

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Federal contracting firms will decide for themselves on how to manage employees who aren't vaccinated against COVID-19 by the Dec. 8 deadline, but agencies are authorized to restrict unvaccinated workers from federal facilities.

The vaccination mandate and deadline apply to most contractor employees, including those working remotely on covered contracts, although there are exceptions for those entitled to accommodations.

The administration has already made clear that contracting companies, not agencies, will be collecting vaccination proof and giving out reasonable accommodations. According to the latest guidance from White House's Safer Federal Workforce Task Force companies are the ones deciding how to discipline employees who refuse to get vaccinated.

"A covered contractor should determine the appropriate means of enforcement with respect to its employee at a covered contractor workplace who refuses to be vaccinated and has not been provided, or does not have a pending request for, an accommodation," the guidance states.

Contracting firms could do this "using its usual process for enforcement of workplace policies" that might be in handbook or collective bargaining agreements, according to the guidance. The latest instruction also points to the procedures being used in federal agencies as a "model for enforcement."

The recommended approach for federal employees is to cycle noncompliant feds through education and counseling before removing anyone who refuses to comply from their job. Although agencies can start that process as soon as Nov. 9, White House officials have stressed recently that these upcoming deadlines "are not cliffs," as employees will go through established human resources processes before dismissal or other disciplinary measures occur.

Whatever process contractors go with, the companies will be charged with ensuring that any unvaccinated employees covered by the mandate follow all appropriate safety protocols. Generally, that will include masking, distancing and testing, but agencies can decide that heightened safety protocols are needed, or that the nature of the responsibilities of a contractor is such that nothing other than a vaccine is adequate, according to the latest guidance.

Agencies will also have the power to decide that covered contractor's employees who aren't inoculated can't enter a federal workplace per the agency's safety protocols.

The update comes as at least 18 states have filed several lawsuits in federal district courts to block the vaccine mandate for contractors, contending that it violates federal procurement law and exceeds the federal government's authority.