President Joe Biden, joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, delivers remarks on the COVID-19 National Month of Action on Wednesday, June 2, 2021, in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House. Photo credit: Official White House photo by Adam Schultz

Biden announces new masking rules for government workers, suggests incentives and mandates to persuade unvaccinated workers

Pushing for more jabs in the workplace, Biden moves closer to mandating COVID-19 vaccinations.

President Biden is requiring civilian federal employees and contractors to inform employers of their COVID-19 vaccination status. If unvaccinated, they must wear masks on the job, submit to frequent COVID testing, and social distance. Also in the new order, there may be some restrictions on unvaccinated employees’ work-related travel.

“This is an American tragedy,” lamented President Biden in a recent press conference. “People are dying, and will die, who don’t have to die.” Noting that the COVID-19 vaccine has yet to be administered to 90 million eligible Americans, Biden called the current health concern,  “a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

He even asked cities and states to use their federal funds as incentives to encourage more people to take the vaccine. Many states have used a variety of incentives. According to a memorandum from the National Governors Association, such incentives have included contests with cash prizes, a Disneyland vacation, complimentary drinks in restaurants, and racing one’s car on the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.  Some of the money can also go to reimbursing employers when workers take time off to obtain vaccinations for themselves and their families.

“This is not about red states or blue states,” said the President regarding the requirements. “It’s literally about life and death. With freedom comes responsibility. Your decision to be unvaccinated impacts someone else.”

The new COVID strain

Biden’s requirements come at a time when health and infectious disease experts are predicting a surge in COVID-19 cases this fall, especially due to the new delta variant of the virus. Director of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), Dr. Rochelle Walensky explained that about 1,000 U.S. counties have less than 30 percent vaccination coverage, primarily in the southeast and the Midwest..

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a statement prior to the Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccination requirements for federal workers. It states that federal employers can require employees to be vaccinated if they comply with the reasonable accommodation provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act and other civil rights laws. It also said employers can offer incentives to motivate employees to get vaccinated just as long as  employees are not coerced.

Mixed reactions from various federal workers’ unions

Coercing federal workers to be vaccinated is a concern among some of the unions which represent federal workers. Although federal employees and contractors will not be forced to prove that they have been vaccinated, others took issue with what they felt was coercion from the Biden administration regarding vaccinations.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers declared that the new Biden Administration requirement “is a clear civil rights violation no matter how the proponents may seek to justify it.” She said that for all federal employees to be safe and feel welcomed at work, “vaccinations must be negotiated between employers and workers, not coerced.” Weingarten revised her views as of Sunday, August 8, when she stated on the television public affairs program “Meet the Press” that she favors vaccinating teachers against COVID-19.

Federal Law Enforcement Association president Larry Cosme said the Biden administration requirements were not the “American way.”  A statement from the American Postal Workers Union stated, “it is not the role of the federal government to mandate vaccinations for the employees we represent,”

In a recent statement, Everett Kelley, the American Federation of Government Employees national president, said that he did not  believe that federal employees would have to be vaccinated as a condition of employment.

“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,” wrote Kelley, whose union is the largest representing federal workers..

Among the unions supporting the requirements are the AFL-CIO, the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, and the American Foreign Service Association.

Because the requirements are not a mandate, and there is no specific implementation date for them, the President of the National Treasury Employees Union wondered how the requirements would be carried out. Tony Reardon, the union’s national president, said in a statement that the union is “deeply concerned” about increasing COVID-19 infection rates and has encouraged union members to be vaccinated to protect co-workers, their families and communities. “Still, we have a lot of questions about how this policy will be implemented and how employee rights and privacy will be protected,” he wrote.

Mike Jones, an employment attorney with Eckert Seamans in Philadelphia, told Bloomberg News that because the COVID-19 vaccines had been approved by the Food and Drug Administration on an emergency basis, the vaccination requirements for federal workers are not a mandate. But when the Food and Drug Administration gives its full approval of the vaccines, “there’s no question at that point that the government can impose a mandate,” said Jones.  The Food and Drug Administration has not yet given its full approval for the COVID-19 vaccines, which are still administered under an emergency basis.

Margaret Summers has worked as a print and radio news reporter and a media relations professional. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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