Unvaccinated employees say they're at their "dream jobs," but feel strongly enough to "upend" their lives.
About 90% of NASA employees have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccination, according to agency data, but about 1,150 workers are seeking an exemption to President Biden’s governmentwide mandate.
Most of the civil servants at NASA who have requested a medical or religious exception to the vaccination requirement, as allowed for under Biden’s executive order, are still waiting for a response from the agency, according to a dozen NASA employees who spoke to Government Executive. An additional 300 employees have not acquiesced to NASA’s requirement to disclose their vaccination status, meaning about 98% of the agency’s workforce is in compliance. NASA employees, like other federal workers, have until Nov. 22 to either prove they are vaccinated or request an exception. Those who fail to do so will be subject to disciplinary action.
“The agency has been working diligently to ensure compliance with the Sept. 9 executive order requiring the COVID-19 vaccination requirement for federal employees, and our workforce has been conscientious in protecting themselves and the NASA mission,” said Karen Northon, a NASA spokeswoman. “With the Nov. 22 deadline approaching, NASA is continuing data collection, review of employee documentation, and education and counseling of employees who are not yet vaccinated.”
All of the NASA employees Government Executive spoke to, who included both federal and contractor staff that have a later January deadline, are refusing the vaccine. Each of the workers, who spanned a broad range of experience, age, geographic location and job type, has participated in protests outside their facilities in recent weeks. They said many general passersby offered their support, but most of the NASA staff exiting the building ignored them or expressed disapproval. Nearly all of them have submitted an exemption request, though one employee has refused to turn over any information as a form of protest against the mandate. Every staffer said they will leave the agency—either by retiring if they are eligible, or by forcing NASA to fire them—if their request is denied.
While the Biden administration has insisted the mandate will not cause any operational impacts for agencies, the vaccine-resistant workforce at NASA has already caused some disruption. Earlier this month, employees from several facilities across the country arranged a “sick out” to protest the mandate. Nyla Trumbach, a test operations engineer at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, participated in the sick out with about 20 of her colleagues at her site. The protest forced NASA to delay the installation of an RS-25 engine, Trumbach said. She suggested the backgrounds of those engaging in the sick out added weight to their fight.
“These guys are rocket scientists,” she said.
Trumbach was the lone employee Government Executive spoke to who has not yet sought an exemption.
“I may be playing it a little bit risky, but that’s what I decided to do,” she said. “I’m protesting the process.”
The employees said the mandate is also causing disruptions as the overwhelming majority of employees who have gotten vaccinated are openly castigating and ostracizing the uninoculated. Taylor Ingram, a contractor at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, said her colleagues have created an unsafe work environment and have sought to expose who is unvaccinated. (Of course, the vaccinated personnel have argued it is their unvaccinated coworkers—who have refused to take a safe and effective vaccine—who have created an unsafe workplace.)
“The treatment from our peers is unfair,” Ingram said.
Unlike the federal personnel, many contractors at NASA have already gotten their exemption requests approved. Ingram, for example, said all 20 of her colleagues who sought an exemption have received approval. Those still awaiting an outcome said the decision to accept their firing, if it comes to that, was a difficult one.
“My job is a childhood dream come true,” said a contractor for the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland who asked not to be identified to avoid retaliation, explaining that she helped stand up a new discipline for software maintenance onboard spacecraft in the early 1990s. “To be fired over something like this,” she said while trying unsuccessfully to fight back tears, “I’d have trouble holding onto that I did something awesome.”
Jason Hopper, who works at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, said he loves his job, but was still willing to lose it.
“I test rocket engines,” Hopper said. Giving that up, he added, “upends my life, but I feel that strongly…It’s gonna suck [if I get fired] because there are a lot of consequences.”
Janice Romanin, a chief engineer at the Glenn Research Center in Ohio, is two years away from retirement, but still said she would get fired rather than get the shots.
“It’s not just a job for us,” Romanin said. “It’s our life, our passion.” She added she can lose a “significant portion” of her pension and her retiree health care benefits, “but I don’t care.”
Northon, the spokeswoman, said NASA expects compliance with the mandate to continue to grow in the coming days. The agency, she said, has started to consider exemption requests and will process them “as quickly as possible and in accordance with all policies governing reasonable accommodations.”
Many of the employees are working with First Liberty, a Christian conservative legal non-profit that has promised to sue the government if any religious exemptions are denied. Some even seemed excited about the prospect of taking their case to court, seeing themselves as part of a larger fight. They called the mandate “insulting” and “demoralizing” and expressed frustration that they will now have to get tested for COVID-19 at their own expense. Still, they said they would put up with those factors if it meant they could continue doing what they love while refusing to get vaccinated.
“This is the best the United States of America has to offer,” said a NASA contractor with L3Harris. “It’s not just a job you get and leave for a better job. There is not a better job to be doing.”