President Joe Biden is pushing forward with a massive plan to require millions of private sector employees to get vaccinated by early next year. But first, he has to make sure workers in his own federal government get the shot.
About four million (40 lakh) federal workers are to be vaccinated by November 22 under the president’s executive order. Some employees, like those at the White House, are nearly all vaccinated. But the rates are lower at other federal agencies, particularly those related to law enforcement and intelligence, according to the agencies and union leaders. And some resistant workers are digging in, filing lawsuits and protesting what they say is unfair overreach by the White House.
The upcoming deadline is the first test of Biden’s push to compel people to get vaccinated. Beyond the federal worker rule, another mandate will take effect in January aimed at around 84 million (8.4 crore) private sector workers, according to guidelines put out this past week.
On Saturday, a federal appeals court in Louisiana temporarily halted the vaccine requirement for businesses with 100 or more workers. The administration says it is confident that the requirement will withstand legal challenges in part because its safety rules preempt state laws.
“The president and the administration wouldn’t have put these requirements in place if they didn’t think that they were appropriate and necessary,” Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said on Sunday on ABC’s “This Week”. “And the administration is certainly prepared to defend them.”
If the mandates are a success, they could make the most serious dent in new coronavirus cases since the vaccine first became available, especially with the news this past week that children aged 5-11 years can get the shot, making an additional 64 million (6.4 crore) people eligible. But with two weeks remaining until the federal worker deadline, some leaders of unions representing the employees say that convincing the unvaccinated to change their mind is increasingly challenging.
“I got the vaccine in February, it was my own choice and I thought it would stop the virus,” said Corey Trammel, a Bureau of Prisons correctional officer and local union president in Louisiana. “But it hasn’t. And now I have people resigning because they are tired of the government overreach on this, they do not want to get the shot. People just don’t trust the government, and they just don’t trust this vaccine.”
Vaccines have a proven track record of safety, backed by clinical trials and independent reviews showing them overwhelmingly effective at preventing serious illness and death from COVID-19. More than 222 million (22.2 crore) Americans have received at least one vaccine dose and more than 193 million (19.3 crore) are fully vaccinated. More than half of the world population has also received a shot.
Scientists have been battling anxiety over the vaccine since it was first authorised; an AP-NORC poll earlier this year found one-third of adults in the US were sceptical, despite assurances that the vaccine was safe and effective and few instances of serious side effects. About 70 per cent of American adults are fully vaccinated and 80 per cent have received at least one dose of a vaccine. Vaccinations have unfolded at uneven rates across the federal government.
Officials at Health and Human Services, US Food and Drug Administration and Housing and Urban Development said they were working on getting their employees vaccinated but had no figures yet.
Several intelligence agencies had at least 20 per cent of their workforce unvaccinated as of late October, said US Rep. Chris Stewart, a Utah Republican who is a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association President Larry Cosme said there are about 31,000 members from 65 federal law enforcement agencies in the association and he estimated 60 per cent of them have been vaccinated.
Homeland Security, a giant government department with more than 2,40,000 employees, was about 64 per cent fully vaccinated by the end of last month. US Customs and Border Protection has received at least 6,000 requests for medical or religious exemptions, according to the union that represents Border Patrol agents.
Federal agencies are warning employees about the upcoming mandate, offering time off to get the vaccine and encouraging workers to comply. But they will not be fired if they do not make the November 22 deadline. They would receive “counselling” and be given five days to start the vaccination process. They could then be suspended for 14 days and eventually, could be terminated, but that process would take months.
Republicans have argued the mandate goes too far. House Oversight Committee Republicans sent a letter in late October suggesting the president’s “authoritarian and extreme mandates infringe upon American freedoms, are unprecedented, and may ultimately be deemed unlawful”.
In their letter, Reps. James Comer of Kentucky and Jody Hice of Georgia said they worried about a large number of government vacancies should thousands of workers refuse and get fired. That concern was also felt by those in the already-understaffed Bureau of Prisons.
A federal corrections officers union in Florida filed a lawsuit this past week over the mandate, saying it was a violation of civil rights. Some prison workers say they are torn about the vaccine, not wanting to lose their livelihoods but also unwilling to sacrifice their personal beliefs.