Biden tells civilian feds to get vaccinated or take regular COVID tests

As expected, the Biden-Harris administration rolled out new COVID-19 guidelines for the federal workforce as part of an overall strategy to increase the U.S. vaccination rate.

president biden delivers remarks on vaccine strategy on july 29 2021 in the white house

President Biden announced a push to encourage more COVID vaccinations in the U.S. that includes new measures directed at the civilian federal workforce.

The White House announced vaccination and testing requirements for over 2 million federal employees on Thursday. Federal employees can either confirm their vaccination status or follow strict protocols like masking and regular testing.

"I'm asking the Defense Department to look into how and when they will add COVID-19 to the list of vaccinations armed forces must get our men and women in uniform," Biden said in a speech from the White House. He added that he's directing the administration to "to take steps to apply similar standards to all federal contractors."

The move comes as agencies are planning their "reentry" into physical workplaces. COVID-19 cases and deaths have been on the rise nationwide, and public health officials have flagged increased concerns about the Delta variant of the virus and vaccination rates.

Guidance released by the White House-led Safer Federal Workforce Taskforce on Thursday spelled out the new rules, which overturn a set of instructions that urged federal managers not to directly ask employees and contractors to share their vaccination status.

"Employees and onsite contractors must sign an attestation confirming their vaccination status, or they will be treated as not fully vaccinated for the purposes of safety protocols," the guidance states. Anyone who doesn't provide a response will be treated as unvaccinated.

In areas of high or substantial transmission, all feds, contractors and visitors must mask in buildings. In areas of low or moderate transmission in most settings, fully vaccinated people won't need to mask or distance.

Agencies also have to set up a system to test feds and onsite contractors who aren't vaccinated either weekly or twice-weekly. Unvaccinated feds and contractors will need to mask, physically distance and comply with the testing requirements. They'll also be subject to existing limits on official travel.

Fully vaccinated federal employees and contractors won't need to distance or be tested and aren't subject to any government-wide limits on official government travel.

The guidance also addresses reasonable accommodations. For feds who don't vaccinate because of religious reasons or due to a disability will follow the same safety protocols as unvaccinated individuals. They'll be subject to the reasonable accommodations process "in the rare case where they cannot."

Other items included in the new guidance include instructions that in-person meetings with greater than 50 participants will require the agency head's approval.

There are also guidelines on quarantining and exposure. Notably, the guidance says that fully vaccinated people who have had close contact with someone with a confirmed or suspected COVID-19 case should get tested 3-5 days later regardless of whether they have symptoms. It also says they should mask indoors in public for two weeks or until they get a negative test result, or quarantine for 10 days if it's positive.

Agencies will be able to cap occupancy levels in specific workplaces to allow physical distancing.

The guidance also addresses cleaning protocols. It also includes a reminder to agencies to satisfy bargaining agreements for their workplace safety plans and notes that agencies are "strongly encouraged to communicate regularly with employee representatives."

Unions, others respond

The American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union, responded cautiously to the widely expected announcement.

"We expect that the particulars of any changes to working conditions, including those related to COVID-19 vaccines and associated protocols, be properly negotiated with our bargaining units prior to implementation," AFGE National President Everett Kelley said in a statement. "Based on today’s announcement, it is our understanding that under President Biden's proposal the vast majority of federal employees would not have to be vaccinated as a condition of employment, but that those who choose not to receive the vaccine may face certain restrictions. While we await specific proposals and anticipate the negotiation process, we encourage all of our members who are able to take advantage of the opportunity to get vaccinated and help our nation put an end to this deadly pandemic."

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), whose district is home to thousands of federal employees, cheered the move.

"Requiring vaccinations for the full federal workforce is the right thing to do for the health of the workforce and the nation they serve. Including all civilian federal employees and contractors in this mandate is huge, it will mean this covers a very large number of workers," Beyer said. "This policy rightly prioritizes federal workers' health, and demonstrates again the Biden-Harris Administration's commitment to winning the fight against this pandemic, eradicating the virus, and keeping Americans safe."