Survey: Majority of Federal Employees Disagree With Biden’s Vaccine Mandate

New York City municipal workers protest on Oct. 25 outside City Hall against the coming COVID-19 vaccine mandate in New York.

New York City municipal workers protest on Oct. 25 outside City Hall against the coming COVID-19 vaccine mandate in New York. Timothy Fadek / AP

Comments submitted as part of the survey show a diversity of thought on the requirement. 

The majority of federal employees recently surveyed (53%) strongly or somewhat disagreed with the Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for federal employees, while 44% strongly or somewhat agreed with it. 

The Government Business Council, the research arm of Government Executive, sent a survey between October 27 and November 2 to Government Executive and Defense One readers, which drew 3,186 respondents. The survey had a 95% confidence level and margin of error of +/- 3%; the vast majority of respondents currently work for a federal agency but the results did include some retirees and congressional and private sector workers. President Biden announced the mandate on September 9 and the deadline is November 22. 

“I am not pro or anti-vaccine, I am pro-choice,” wrote one federal employee in the comments section. “It should be a choice not a mandate, last I knew this was a free country.” Anonymous comments submitted as part of the survey show the diversity of thought on the mandate as well as the nuance of arguments on both sides. 

Thirty-percent of respondents said they thought the vaccine mandate will be slightly or moderately effective in protecting the federal workforce from the coronavirus; 42% thought it will be very or extremely effective and 29% thought it will not be effective. 

“The vaccine mandate is most likely legal. It's also probably effective,” said a respondent. “It, however, does not mean the federal [government] should have the power to force adults and the civilian workforce to get a shot that they don't want.” 

The mandate requires all federal employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19 by November 22, or claim a religious or medical exemption. Those who decline vaccination and whose agencies deny their exemption requests will face progressive discipline, up to removal from the federal service. 

Another respondent said, “the mandate will not be effective if the many false religious exemptions are approved,” because “most are not sincerely held beliefs, but just people that don't want to get their vaccine.”

A different person said, “A coworker's choice not to be vaccinated increases my potential exposure to COVID, potentially increases my workload if I have to cover for them if they are out ill and increases the cost of [Federal Employees Health Benefits]/Medicare.”

The survey looked at the difference of views among those on full telework compared to those going into the office at least one day a week. The chart below shows approval and disapproval levels based on that status, with those going into the office at least once a week more likely to strongly disapprove of the mandate. 

“If you can do your job, i.e. telework, without contacting others there is no reason to be vaccinated,” said one federal employee in the comments section. “It is the individual’s body and they should have the right to decide what is done to it without fearing economic ruin.”

Another said, “​​I worked and put the protocols in to keep everyone safe. I worked on the front lines for the last two years and now you want to fire me?”

One respondent who said they work for the Agriculture Department's Farm Service Agency said they love their job and customers they serve, “but lately I do not feel the agency has my back or appreciates the work our agency does. After being on the front lines, figuring out telework, changing the way our agency goals are achieved I feel the employees deserve a little more than a 'do it or get out policy.' ” 

As for the ability to enforce a vaccine mandate, 50% of respondents strongly or somewhat disagreed that the federal government has the authority to enforce the requirement, while 46% somewhat or strongly agreed. There were no major differences in responses from managers and non-managers to this question; however, there were some differences among those in different work environments, as shown below. 

The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel issued a legal opinion in July that says federal law doesn’t prohibit public and private entities from mandating coronavirus vaccines, even if those vaccines do not yet have full authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. Also, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a similar decision in May, which it updated in October

As for regions, the area with the highest approval rating (54%) of the mandate was the D.C. metro area, which is where federal agency headquarters are concentrated. Respondents living in the Southwest had the highest disapproval rating. 

“The D.C. power brokers are using us as pawns,” said a respondent. 

While not a question in the survey, many raised concerns in the comments section about loss of employees due to the mandate. 

“Is the federal government prepared to lose 20-30% of its workforce to retirements, resignations or terminations?” said one respondent. 

“I will retire from federal service if I am threatened with discipline/firing,” said another. “ I am proud of my military service (Vietnam veteran) and federal service (FBI and [Internal Revenue Service]) and continually received ‘outstanding’ performance evals as GS-14. The federal mandate is morally wrong.” 

Someone else said, “this is a train wreck, but may provide promotion opportunities for the younger workforce.” 

However, there were also several comments encouraging vaccinations. “I sincerely appreciate efforts to get our team vaccinated,” said one person. “I am grateful for the mandate and wish it had come sooner.”

For comparison, a recent survey from Qualtrics, an experience management company, found that the majority of respondents (58%) supported vaccine mandates from either employers or the federal government. 

“Employees in the [technology and information technology] industry are the most supportive of federal vaccine mandates compared to those who work in health care, retail and government,” said Qualtrics. “Roughly a quarter of government, health care, and private employees oppose mandates that would apply to them.” 

Overall, 42% of respondents want their company leaders to enforce the mandate, while 39% do not, the Qualtrics survey found. That survey was done between October 12 and 15. There were 1,309 respondents who were chosen from a randomized panel and deemed eligible if they live in the United States, are an adult and are at least part-time employees. 

Government Executive previously reported about reactions to the mandate from NASA, Federal Bureau of Prisons and other federal employees. While some agencies have shared their vaccination levels with reporters, lawmakers or the public, the levels are not known for all. Top House Republicans are seeking those numbers by November 10. 

In one example, as of late October, several intelligence agencies had at least 20% of their workforce unvaccinated, with some as high as 40%, said Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, who is a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the Associated Press reported on Friday. He cited information that the Biden administration gave to the committee, but hasn’t released publicly, and didn’t name the specific agencies since the full results were classified. 

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