With the delta variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 rapidly spreading across the country, U.S. President Joe Biden has announced civilian federal government employees must be vaccinated or submit to regular testing and wear masks.
“Every federal government employee will be asked to attest to their vaccination status,” the president said Thursday in a speech from the White House East Room. “Anyone who does not attest or is not vaccinated will be required to mask, no matter where they work, test one or two times a week to see if they’ve acquired COVID, socially distance, and generally will not be allowed to travel for work.”
The federal government employs more than 4 million Americans, including over 2 million in the federal civilian workforce, a White House statement said.
The same standards will apply to federal contractors, Biden added.
"If you want to do business with the federal government, get your people vaccinated,” he said.
Labor unions representing federal workers are reacting cautiously.
“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,” said Everett Kelley, the head of the American Federation of Government Employees, which is the largest union of federal workers, representing a workforce of 700,000.
“Forcing people to undertake a medical procedure is not the American way and is a clear civil rights violation no matter how proponents may seek to justify it,” said Larry Cosme, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA), which represents 30,000 people across 65 agencies.
"We would, therefore, encourage the administration to work collaboratively with FLEOA and other federal employee groups to incentivize all federal employees to be vaccinated, rather than penalize those who do not,” Cosme said.
The decision to get vaccinated is one federal employees will be able to make, “because largely unvaccinated people continue to spread the virus and until we have more people who are vaccinated and are curbing the spread there needs to be proper protocols to keep Americans safe,” the White House deputy press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, told reporters prior to the president’s remarks.
“And as a large employer, the largest in this country, who cares about the individuals who keep the government running, we have an obligation to be good stewards of the workforce and ensure their health and their safety.”
Biden also said he is asking the Department of Defense to explore how and when to add mandatory inoculations for the coronavirus to the list of vaccines required for service personnel.
“Our men and women in uniform who protect this country from grave threats should be protected as much as possible from getting COVID-19,” the president said. “I think this is particularly important because our troops serve in places throughout the world, many where vaccination rates are low and disease is prevalent.”
The president also discussed whether people who are fully vaccinated will need booster shots.
“As of now, my medical advisers say the answer is no,” Biden said. “No American needs a booster now. But if science tells us there’s a need for boosters, that’s something we’ll do.”
Asked by a reporter about ordering states to compel vaccinations, the president replied the legality of that is not yet determined.
“It’s still a question whether the federal government can mandate the whole country,” he said.
Biden also announced the federal government will reimburse private employers who give paid time off to get vaccinated or take a family member to get shots. And he suggested more state and local governments offer $100 to those who get fully vaccinated.
Again, the president tried to depoliticize the issue of vaccination.
"The vaccine was developed and authorized under a Republican administration” of his predecessor Donald Trump, Biden said.
He also repeated that wearing masks “is not a political statement,” while acknowledging widespread frustration with the return to masking.
"I know it's frustrating. I know it's exhausting to think we're still in this fight. I know we hoped this would be a simple, straightforward line without problems or new challenges. But that isn't real life,” he said.
Noting that desperate foreign leaders are calling him “almost every day” to plead with him to send more vaccine doses to their countries, Biden said it is “an American blessing that we have vaccines for each and every American. … It’s just a shame to squander that blessing.”