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Biden to Push Vaccines for Fed Workers 07/29 06:15

   

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- Hoping to set a model for employers nationwide, President 
Joe Biden will announce Thursday that millions of federal workers must show 
proof they've received a coronavirus vaccine or submit to regular testing and 
stringent social distancing, masking and travel restrictions.

   An individual familiar with the president's plans, who spoke on condition of 
anonymity to confirm details that had yet to be announced publicly, emphasized 
that the new guidance is not a vaccine mandate for federal employees and that 
those who decide not to get vaccinated aren't at risk of being fired.

   The new policy amounts to a recognition by the Biden administration that the 
government -- the nation's biggest employer -- must do more to boost sluggish 
vaccination rates, as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations rebound, driven 
largely by the spread of the more infectious delta variant.

   Biden has placed the blame for the resurgence of the virus squarely on the 
shoulders of those who aren't vaccinated.

   "The pandemic we have now is a pandemic of the unvaccinated," Biden said 
during a visit Wednesday to a truck plant in Pennsylvania, where he urged the 
unvaccinated to "please, please, please, please" get a shot. A day earlier, he 
mused that "if those other 100 million people got vaccinated, we'd be in a very 
different world."

   The administration on Wednesday was still reviewing details of the expected 
guidance, and significant questions about its implementation and scope 
remained. It was unclear whether the president would issue similar requirements 
for the military and how federal contractors would be affected. The 
administration is announcing the move now with the hope that it will give 
agencies enough time to craft their own guidelines and plans for implementation 
before workers return fully to the office.

   The announcement is expected to come as part of broader remarks Thursday 
that Biden promised would outline "the next steps in our effort to get more 
Americans vaccinated."

   The individual said the conversation around the new vaccine guidance had 
been in the works for some time and was intended to provide an example for 
private companies to follow as they get ready for workers to return this fall. 
But it's just the latest policy shift from the administration during a week of 
new coronavirus mitigation efforts, as the White House grapples with a surge in 
coronavirus cases and hospitalizations nationwide driven by the delta variant 
and breakthrough infections among vaccinated Americans.

   On Monday, the Department of Veterans Affairs became the first federal 
agency to require vaccinations, for its health workers. And on Tuesday, the 
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed its masking guidelines and 
said that all Americans living in areas with substantial or high coronavirus 
transmission rates should wear masks indoors, regardless of their vaccination 
status.

   With the latest CDC data showing that Washington, D.C., is facing 
substantial rates of transmission, by Wednesday reporters and staff were again 
masking up at the White House.

   The new guidance on vaccinations for federal employees reflects the reality 
that Biden's national vaccination drive has fallen short of his goals. Public 
opinion seems to have hardened around the vaccines, with a recent poll from The 
Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research finding that among 
American adults who have not yet received a vaccine, 35% say they probably will 
not, and 45% say they definitely will not.

   "Doing more of the same just will not work," said Dr. Leana Wen, a former 
Baltimore health commissioner who's become a leading public health commentator 
on the pandemic.

   "This is the logical next step," Wen continued. "If you want to be going in 
to work and interacting with other people, then you have to be sure you 
wouldn't have COVID, and you can do that either by getting vaccinated or by 
testing."

   About 60% of American adults have been fully vaccinated. Biden missed his 
goal of having 70% of adults get at least one shot by July 4. The latest figure 
is 69.3%.

   Federal workers and contractor employees are dispersed throughout the 
nation, including many in states where vaccine skepticism runs high. New York 
University public service professor Paul Light suggested the new guidance from 
the Biden administration could help boost vaccination rates in states where 
there's been significant resistance.

   "You can't throw a stick without hitting a fed in many parts of the 
country," he said.

   Light noted that the government's influence goes well beyond the people it 
directly employs. Federal contractors and grant recipients will have to weigh 
how they'll adjust to vaccination requirements from Washington.

   "If the federal government were to say that everybody who works for the 
government directly or indirectly must be vaccinated, that's a massive 
footprint," Light said.

   He estimated that the federal government directly employs 2.2 million 
full-time civil servants, plus 1.4 million active-duty military personnel and 
about 500,000 workers in the U.S. Postal Service. Private contractor employees 
working on federal jobs number about 5 million, and there are 1.8 million other 
people employed under federal grants.

   While the administration hopes the new guidance will boost vaccination 
rates, having Biden wade squarely into the middle of the ongoing political 
debate surrounding vaccines could backfire if it further fuels GOP criticism 
and distrust of the vaccine among the president's detractors.

   The AP-NORC poll found that views on vaccinations divide sharply along party 
lines, with Republicans far more likely than Democrats to say they have not 
been vaccinated and definitely or probably won't be, 43% to 10%.

   Indeed, South Carolina GOP Rep. Ralph Norman, who has resisted the new mask 
requirements on Capitol Hill, hinted at the fight to come over the new 
guidelines.

   "To require individuals to provide proof of vaccination would be a massive 
intrusion on the doctor-patient relationship and the privacy of the 
individual," he said in a statement.

   The Biden administration may also have to grapple with legal challenges to 
the latest guidelines.

   The federal workplace is governed by layers of rules and regulations, so 
private employers as well as state and local governments will be looking at the 
White House vaccination policy to signal how far they can go without triggering 
resistance from employees or even lawsuits.

   But while the Justice Department and the federal Equal Employment 
Opportunity Commission have both said no federal laws prevent businesses from 
requiring vaccinations as a condition of employment, litigation is certain to 
follow workplace mandates, said Sharon Perley Masling, an employment lawyer who 
leads the COVID-19 task force at Morgan Lewis.

   "It's a really challenging issue for employers," Masling said. "We have seen 
employers explore a whole range of options, from encouraging vaccinations, to 
incentivizing vaccinations, to mandating vaccinations for new hires, or for 
everyone."

   Among examples from major companies, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines are 
requiring new employees to show proof of vaccination. Goldman Sachs is 
requiring its employees to disclose their vaccination status but is not 
mandating they be vaccinated.

   If an employer does set a hard requirement, employees can ask for an 
exemption for medical or religious reasons under federal civil rights laws.

   According to EEOC rules, the employer must provide "reasonable accommodation 
that does not pose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer's 
business." Some accommodations could include masking up at work, social 
distancing, working a modified shift, regular COVID-19 testing or the option to 
work remotely, or even offering a reassignment.

 
 
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