Agencies continue to see vaccination rates rise as disciplinary actions ramp up.
Agencies across the Biden administration are beginning to move to more severe forms of punishment for employees who fail to comply with the president’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, advancing a process that could result in thousands of civil servants losing their jobs.
To date, agencies have relied on education and “counseling” as a first step in the progressive discipline process related to the mandate, following guidance from the White House and its Safer Federal Workforce Task Force. The administration in November advised agencies to push back more severe penalties into January, and some federal offices now say they are starting to take action.
Every agency has shown improvement in both vaccination and overall compliance rates since the administration first released them in late November. Some, such as the Education Department, has reached 100% compliance, meaning every employee is either vaccinated against COVID-19 or has a religious or medical exemption request pending. The Environmental Protection Agency and Nuclear Regulatory Commission have seen their vaccination rates jump by an additional 3% of their workforces in recent weeks. Below are the compliance and vaccination rates for every major federal agency, which in some cases date back to December.
For the remaining few employees at NRC, the agency will begin further discipline later this month. The Agriculture Department, which still has about 1,600 employees out of compliance with the mandate, is preparing to advance to the next phase of discipline now. Like many other agencies with which Government Executive spoke, the department is hopeful that step will motivate the final holdouts to get their shots.
“As we move forward with the next steps of the enforcement process, which will involve letters proposing brief suspensions for those few still not in compliance with the vaccination requirement, we anticipate that even more of our employees will get vaccinated in the days and weeks ahead,” a spokesperson said.
Administration officials on the federal workforce task force previously told Government Executive there would not be further delays in beginning the more severe punishments for non-compliant feds, and an Office of Management and Budget official confirmed there has not been further guidance.
“Agencies continue to move forward with the process, including taking progressive disciplinary measures as necessary,” the official said.
Some agencies, such as Customs and Border Protection and the Justice Department, were prepared to move forward with suspensions in December, before the White House intervened. Instead, they used December to conduct their education and counseling activities, which several agencies credited for improving their numbers. In addition to sending letters to non-compliant staff warning them of pending punishments, agency leaders conducted town hall meetings and sent videos imploring workers to think of their families and colleagues. A spokesperson for the U.S. Agency for International Development, meanwhile, said the agency is encouraging employees who do not get vaccinated to request an exemption to avoid disciplinary action.
Delaying the suspensions and potential firings allowed agencies to wait until after the holidays to begin carrying out the punishments and working around any operational impacts they could have. Agencies are so far adamant the mandate has not had any such effect.
“Implementation of the requirement has not resulted in any disruptions to critical services that the American people depend on,” said Tyler Cherry, a spokesman for the Interior Department.
Agencies are also working their way through their medical and religious exemption requests. USDA, for example, has about 10% of its workforce, or more than 7,300 employees, seeking to get out of the vaccine mandate. Interior has nearly 5,000, while NASA has nearly 1,000. The departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security are each in the process of handling tens of thousands of exemption requests. The vast majority of those employees have yet to hear back on their requests and could still face disciplinary action if their requests are denied and they decline to get the shots. Agencies are weighing their “operational environments” and other factors in making those determinations and must institute testing programs for exempted or non-compliant employees by Feb. 15.
“Agencies are in the process of reviewing and adjudicating exception requests,” the OMB official said. “That process will continue to pick up pace as agency personnel return from the holidays and last week’s federal office closures due to inclement weather.”
The National Science Foundation, which moved forward with three proposed 14-day suspensions on Tuesday, offered a glimpse into exemption approvals. The agency received 41 requests, 33 were approved and two—one religious and one medical—were denied. The other six are still pending.