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Federal Workers: Get Fully Vaccinated or Face Stepped Up COVID Protocols

July 29, 2021 by Dan McCue
President Joe Biden. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden told federal employees and onsite contractors Thursday that they need to get fully vaccinated or face regular testing and be required to wear masks at all times while on the job.

Speaking in the East Room of the White House, Biden said that in the first six months of his administration’s vaccination effort, 164 million Americans have been fully vaccinated, including 80% of seniors and more than 60% of adults.

However, this hasn’t been enough to stave off a much more transmissible strain of COVID-19 – the delta variant.

“The good news is that we are prepared for this,” Biden said. “We know how to stop it: get more people vaccinated.”

He estimated that there are about 90 million Americans who are currently eligible to receive a shot who haven’t gotten one.

“It’s heartbreaking,” he said of those who are now coming down with the delta variant. “It’s all the more heartbreaking because it is preventable.”

The president said going forward, every federal government employee and onsite contractor will be asked to attest to their vaccination status.

Anyone who does not attest to being fully vaccinated will be required to wear a mask on the job no matter their geographic location or physical distance from all other employees and visitors.

In addition, they will be required to comply with a weekly or twice weekly screening requirement, and be subject to restrictions on official travel.

The language the president used in rolling out the new requirements was sterner than he’s used in the past, a sign that he’s grown frustrated in recent weeks as the vaccination rate has gone down and the delta variant has surged in communities with large numbers of unvaccinated residents.

“Vaccines are safe. Highly effective. There’s nothing political about them,” he said in a soft but emphatic cadence.

“A mask is not a political statement. It’s about protecting yourself. And others,” he said latter. 

In addition to the measures outlined above, Biden also directed administration officials and the heads of federal agencies to take steps to apply similar standards to all federal contractors, presumably leaving it to those officials to work out the details.

As a result, it’s possible different agencies, and different types of workers, will face different requirements.

He also directed the Defense Department to look into how and when they will add COVID-19 vaccination to the list of required vaccinations for members of the military.

He is encouraging private sector employers to follow the model the administration is now putting into place.

The announcement also included incentives for small- and medium-sized businesses to get more of their workers and members of their workers’ families vaccinated.

Beginning today, the federal government will now be reimbursed for offering their employees paid leave to get family members, including their children, vaccinated.

The president will also call on employers who have not offered paid time off to their employees for vaccination to do so.

This follows a similar initiative announced in April, that fully reimbursed any small- or medium-sized business that provided workers with paid time off to get vaccinated. The reimbursements were drawn from funds in the American Rescue Plan.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, by the end of June, half of all workers in America had access to paid time-off for vaccinations, and 75% of workers who were offered paid time-off for vaccinations from their employer reported being vaccinated.

The president also called on state and local governments and territories to do more to incentivize vaccination, including offering $100 to those who get vaccinated. 

“Throughout America’s vaccination efforts, we have seen that financial incentives serve as a motivating factor for some people to get vaccinated,” the president said. “When the grocery store Kroger started offering $100 to their associates to get vaccinated, it saw vaccination rates increase from 50% to 75%. 

“States like New Mexico, Ohio, and Colorado have piloted $100 incentive programs that have also helped move the dial on vaccinations,” he said. 

According to research from the University of California, Los Angeles, roughly one-third of unvaccinated individuals said a cash payment would make them more likely to get a shot. 

Biden called on states, territories and local government officials to draw on American Rescue Plan funding to provide $100 to anyone who gets vaccinated.

Finally, Biden turned his attention to school districts nationwide, calling on them to host at least one pop-up vaccination clinic in coming weeks in an effort to get more kids 12 or older vaccinated.

Toward that end, the White House is directing pharmacies in the federal pharmacy program to prioritize this and to work with school districts across the country to host vaccination clinics at schools and colleges. 

In March, the Biden administration prioritized K-12 educators, school staff, and child care workers for vaccinations. According to the administration, this directive worked, resulting in nearly 90% of educators and school staff being vaccinated. 

The moves announced Thursday come as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its mask guidance for Americans, urging even people who are vaccinated to wear masks indoors in places with high virus transmission.

The scope of the new effort is nearly unprecedented as there are an estimated 4.3 million federal workers, including more than 1.4 million uniformed military personnel, not to mention millions more federal contractors.

A recently posted legal opinion from the Justice Department finding that federal law doesn’t prohibit public agencies and private businesses from requiring COVID-19 vaccines could also give cover for businesses to require their employees to be inoculated.

White House officials wanted to announce the new requirements before agencies and private businesses return their workforces to offices in the fall to give them time to implement the changes and to allow workers time to get fully vaccinated.

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