By Deborah Hopkins, November 17, 2021
Executive Order 14043 requiring all Federal employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by November 22, unless the employee qualifies for a legal exemption (disability or religious belief), it’s all but certain your agency is currently dealing with a significant number of exemption requests. And with that deadline fast approaching, agencies will soon be disciplining employees who fail to provide proof of full vaccination by that date.
OPM and the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force recently put out guidance about the progressive discipline process agencies should generally use in instances where employees refuse or fail to be vaccinated as required by EO 14043.
In a recent training class, a student brought up this question:
The guidance says that employees who fail to comply with the vaccine mandate should be counseled, and then suspended, and if they continue to refuse to be vaccinated, they should be removed. Isn’t this a due process issue since the discipline is pre-decided in these cases?
And our FELTG answer:
It’s wise to be thinking of these potential concerns before the disciplinary process begins en masse. Fortunately, if Deciding Officials are sufficiently prepared and understand their limited role in the process, due process violations can easily be avoided.
The steps of due process in agency disciplinary actions under 5 CFR § 752 are:
- Notice to the employee of the charge(s), the proposed penalty, and the material the agency relied upon in the proposal;
- Employee’s opportunity to respond, with the assistance of a representative if desired; and
- An impartial decision, where the decision is made based ONLY on the proposal and the employee’s response.
While the guidance says generally employees should be removed for failing to comply, the Deciding Official has the final say. And even if every DO ultimately decides to remove an employee who does not get vaccinated (and does not qualify for an exemption), as long as the DO can credibly testify that she did not make her decision until after the employee’s reply, then there is no due process violation.
Think of a few of statutory penalties that exist for Federal employees: minimum 30-day suspension for misuse of a GOV; 3-day suspension for a first offense of whistleblower reprisal under 5 USC 7515; removal for Treason. These do not raise a due process issue if the DO considers the employee’s response before making the decision about the proposed discipline. The same principle applies here.
We’ve been busy at FELTG helping agencies prepare for these processes. If there’s anything we can do to help you, please don’t hesitate to let us know. Hopkins@FELTG.com