An inside look at the White House's approach to implementing Biden's mandate.
Nearly 93% of the federal workforce has now received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose and more than 97% is in compliance with President Biden’s mandate by either getting a shot or requesting an exemption.
The effort was a significant lift and an unprecedented challenge for the Biden administration, which, according to administration officials and internal agency communications, deployed a variety of resources, guidance and pressure campaigns to boost its numbers. Shortly after taking office, Biden established the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force—composed of officials from the White House, Office of Personnel Management and General Services Administration—which ultimately took the lead in coordinating vaccine mandate implementation efforts.
The task force helped facilitate conversations among agencies so they could share what was working and what was not, said administration policy experts who worked on the task force and spoke with Government Executive on background to offer details on public safety decision making. It leaned on expertise from member agencies, such as guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for public health practices and the Office of Personnel Management for leave and workforce policies. The process was iterative, the officials said, as they solicited constant feedback from agency leaders on their outstanding questions and updated guidance accordingly. The task force helped agencies establish internal deadlines to reach certain benchmarks.
“So much is driven by having that deadline, having that goal, being able to move folks toward that,” said one task force member, adding the panel has stressed allowing agencies to share with each other what has—and has not—been successful. “When you’re trying to implement something through any organization like this, you can’t communicate enough.”
From those meetings, the task force members said, agencies learned the importance of constantly collecting and analyzing vaccination data so they knew exactly where they stood. If some regions or components were lagging behind others, agencies could then take steps—such as holding town halls, initiating supervisor conversations or distributing literature—to help catch them up. Agencies could determine when the best time of day was to speak to various parts of their workforces, whether to use bulletin boards or more widespread Xeroxed and distributed paperwork, or the best strategies for posting on their intranet sites. Data collection and communication helped agencies conduct this troubleshooting.
“Did we put it in the right place, did we ask the right folks, is the nature and rhythm of the work such that the kind of engagement we’re doing is appropriate or do we need to have different touch points because of when folks gather?” the official said, describing the sort of questions the task force helped agencies think through.
Despite small pockets of employees throughout government maintaining they would not get the vaccine and a slight majority of civil servants saying they did not approve of Biden’s mandate, the results show the process, for the most part, worked. While the administration could not share the federal workforce’s vaccination rate at the time Biden issued his mandate in September—citing the difficulty in collecting information when the deadline was still months away—anecdotal evidence suggests major turnarounds at least at some agencies. At Customs and Border Protection, for example, data show about 25% of the workforce could prove their vaccination status shortly after Biden announced his mandate. Today, the agency is at 87%. The Internal Revenue Service saw 22,000 employees start the vaccination process since the president’s announcement. In the two weeks since the deadline, agencies have seen a 20% reduction in their non-compliant population.
Agencies took varying approaches in the run up to the vaccination deadline, including messages from top leadership. CBP made personal appeals to employees in videos sent to its workforce, a transcript of which was obtained by Government Executive.
"Think of your health, your career," said Manuel Padilla Jr., CBP's acting executive assistant commissioner for operations support. "Your loved ones and your families and how they will be impacted by your decision."
A second speaker in the video—another acting executive assistant commissioner, Mark Borkowski—appealed to employees' broader sense of public service.
"We are serving a higher mission," Borkowski said. “I know all of us are proud, as the chief and I are, of being part of CBP and the mission that CBP performs. But with public service comes responsibility. It comes with a commitment to make the service of the public more important than our own interests. That's the situation that many of us find [our]selves in today."
The executives went on to explain the timeline and potential disciplinary actions, with Borkowski suggesting the Nov. 22 deadline for federal employees to confirm their vaccination status was "not an accident" as the cloud of discipline could be hovering over Thanksgiving. They stressed the discipline would be progressive, take weeks to unfold and be influenced by employees' previous disciplinary record. They predicted terminations, if necessary, would begin in January.
Since that message, OPM and the Office of Management and Budget pushed agencies to delay severe punishments for employees not in compliance with the mandate until the new year. Previously, agencies like CBP had planned to begin suspending some unvaccinated employees in December. At the Justice Department, for example, 10-day suspensions were set to begin as early as Dec. 5, according to internal emails obtained by Government Executive. While the counseling messages sent to non-compliant CBP staff, a copy of which was also reviewed by Government Executive, specifically referred to notices as “non-disciplinary,” Justice officials referred to the department's messages as “disciplinary/counseling letters.” The Justice notice said that employees have received many reminders of their obligations and informed recipients of their (now obsolete) five-day countdown before more serious discipline commenced.
Like CBP, Justice recommended employees feeling stressed by the decision to reach out to the department’s Employee Assistance Program office.
The task force officials said the threat of discipline played a role in boosting vaccination rates, but messages about safety and agency mission were nearly as critical.
“The most important thing to convey is how seriously the organization takes the vaccination requirement…and there are a lot of different ways that you can do that,” one official said. “You should obviously make clear that ultimately, if you don’t comply, there are consequences.”
The administration is not planning for further delays in punishments for non-compliant feds, the task force members said, meaning suspensions are likely to start in January. They expect the non-compliance rate will continue to shrink in the coming weeks, meaning the Pentagon and civilian agencies will not have to dismiss the roughly 100,000 feds and military personnel currently subject to counseling. Where firings do take place, “agencies will manage through that,” an official said.
Agencies are also currently working through their exemption requests, with some relying on individual supervisors to make eligibility determinations and others, like CBP, using a “panel of executives.” Decisions could take a few more days or several more weeks depending on the operational environment and other factors agencies must consider. Employees deemed ineligible, either because their request is denied outright or because their specific workplace does not allow for an accommodation, will have another couple weeks to decide if they will get vaccinated before they face disciplinary action.
A task force member suggested the credit for the government’s high compliance rate rested primarily with agency leaders and supervisors who led the charge on the ground.
“Obviously the task force can provide guidance but ultimately, these results reflect thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people putting in that time, leading that effort,” the official said. “Late nights, weekends, missing dinners, who knows what to make sure they’re engaging with someone, having that conversation, running that data. It’s a reflection of the tremendous people we have in the federal government, how lucky we are to have them here doing this fantastic work.”