By Deborah Hopkins, December 7, 2021
While the federal mandate for COVID-19 vaccination had a compliance rate of more than 97% from civilian and military personnel as of the end of November, there are still a number of personnel who have not complied with the Executive Order or requested an exemption. The deadline for compliance of civilians was November 22. Until a few days ago, the guidance from the administration had been that agencies should begin the process of counseling, then quickly disciplining, employees who refused to comply.
Perhaps, as a direct result of requests for delay by labor unions, the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force updated its guidance on discipline for vaccine refusals, encouraging agencies to counsel and educate employees on the benefits of vaccination for an “appropriate period” of time rather than the 5 days previously recommended.
In an email to agencies, OPM more closely defined that time period by advising agencies to refrain from suspensions until after the holidays. This timeline aligns more closely with the January 4 deadline the administration set for federal contractors to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
The Task Force guidance also included a new suggested step in the disciplinary process of noncompliant employees — the reprimand.
If the employee does not demonstrate progress toward becoming fully vaccinated through completion of a required vaccination dose or provision of required documentation by the end of the counseling and education period, agencies may issue a letter of reprimand, followed by a short suspension (generally, 14 days or less).
Reports from the end of November revealed that some agencies were already beginning the disciplinary process for employees who did not comply with the vaccine requirement. Most of those actions will likely be held in abeyance, but the email from OPM does not say agencies are prohibited from disciplining certain noncompliant employees before the end of the year.
According to a November 29 article by Government Executive, OPM’s email said “We understand that your agencies may need to act on enforcement sooner for a limited number of employees, such as where there are additional or compounding performance or workplace safety issues under consideration, but in general, consistency across government in further enforcement of the vaccine requirement after the start of the new calendar year is desired,” they wrote. “We believe this approach is the best one to achieving our goal of getting the federal workforce vaccinated.”
I’m sure this is frustrating for some of you who had already begun work on the disciplinary process and is welcome news to others who are inundated with discipline issues. Wherever you might be, and however you might feel about the vaccine requirement, FELTG thanks you for your service to the American people and promises we will keep you posted as new developments arise. Hopkins@FELTG.com