Federal workers and contractors will have to declare their vaccination status against COVID-19 or use additional public health precautions, President Joe Biden announced Thursday, signaling a more aggressive stance against the evolving virus.
“With freedom comes responsibility, and your decision not to get vaccinated impacts someone else,” Biden said in a national address highlighting the risks for unvaccinated people and society at large.
Those who are unvaccinated will have to wear a mask on the job, regardless of the level of transmission of the virus in their geographic regions; keep a physical distance from other employees and visitors; and undergo weekly or twice-weekly testing for the coronavirus.
Since the federal government is the country’s largest employer, experts say the move provides political cover for state and local governments to do the same, and gives more leeway to private employers, too.
The administration is urging private sector employers to follow its example.
“If you want to do business with the federal government, get your workers vaccinated,” Biden said.
Biden cited support from some of Washington’s most powerful business lobbies, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers.
“Given the emergence of the Delta variant, these new federal workplace protocols are prudent steps to protect public health and our economic recovery," said Neil Bradley, U.S. Chamber of Commerce executive vice president and chief policy officer, adding that the business group "strongly encourages all Americans to get vaccinated."
The General Service Administration and the Office of Personnel Management issued a memo outlining the new policies for employees, onsite contractors and visitors to federal buildings.
It’s the responsibility of federal agencies to establish testing protocol for unvaccinated federal employees and contractors, according to the memo, but officials recommend testing once or twice a week.
The announcement comes as cases continue to climb across the country as concerns about the highly infectious delta variant grow.
State and local governments have announced some vaccination requirements for workers. Mask requirements have returned in cities like Washington, D.C., which announced earlier Thursday that masks would be required for all vaccinated and unvaccinated people indoors beginning Saturday.
The federal government employs 4 million people, according to the White House. There are 2.2 million civil servants, 1.4 million active-duty military, and 500,000 Postal Service workers, according to New York University public service professor Paul Light.
Another 5 million people have full-time employment through jobs created through federal contracts, though it’s not clear how many are “onsite.” Another 1.8 million people are employed through universities, think tanks, and state and local governments through federal funds.
Everett Kelley, the national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said in a statement that the union expected any changes to working conditions to be negotiated with their bargaining units before a new policy is implemented.
“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,” he said. “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.”
White House Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said during a press briefing Thursday that she didn’t have updated numbers about the vaccination rate among federal workers.
Biden is also directing the Department of Defense to consider how and when it will add the COVID-19 vaccine to its list of required vaccinations for military members. The Pentagon had previously said it would only require the vaccine after full Food and Drug Administration approval.
The Department of Veterans Affairs earlier this week said its health care workers would be required to be vaccinated against the virus.
The administration may have been emboldened by a recent Department of Justice legal opinion. That backed up an earlier decision in favor of vaccine mandates by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The policy marks a shift as vaccination rates plateau.
$100 offer urged
But the administration also is doubling down on incentives to urge people to get the shot. The Department of the Treasury announced it was urging state, local and territorial governments to provide $100 to every newly vaccinated person to incentivize people to get shots. The agency and the Internal Revenue Service also said eligible employers could access expanded paid leave tax credits for employees who take paid leave to bring a family member to get a shot or recover from the vaccination.
“I know that paying people to get vaccinated might sound unfair to folks who have gotten vaccinated already, but here’s the deal. If incentives help us beat this virus, I believe we should use them,” Biden said.
The administration is also calling on school districts to host at least one pop-up vaccination site in the coming weeks to increase vaccinations among children ages 12 or older, who currently qualify for the immunization. Officials also said the federal pharmacy program should work with districts to host vaccination clinics at schools and colleges.
Nirav Shah, president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials and director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said an attestation for federal workers provides people options, but can nudge them toward vaccinations. It can also normalize vaccinations, particularly if the federal government or other employers offer on-site vaccinations.
“They are not the first tool we reach for – generally one of the latter tools. Of course, here, when it comes to COVID vaccination, we've reached for a lot of tools initially, education, persuasion. And now the discussion is turning to mandates,” Shah said on a press call.
Karyl Rattay, the Delaware Division of Public Health director, said on the same press call that setting testing requirements for employees could lead to more vaccinations in the future.
“Weekly testing that not only helps us, helps our states and our communities be safer, but it also certainly provides an opportunity for counseling and education around the vaccine,” she said. “Maybe somebody comes in for a weekly test three, four weeks in a row, and talks to a nurse there, develops a relationship with them and finally on the fourth visit they're like, ‘Alright, here's my arm.’”
Epidemiologists and administration officials continue to stress the vaccine is the best tool against delta as the variant sweeps through the country.
Though the variant has driven an uptick in hospitalizations in some states, among the 161 million Americans vaccinated, just 0.0025 percent have been hospitalized and 0.0005 percent have died from COVID-19.