Different policies to apply to US government officials based on COVID-19 vaccination status

By on 08/06/2022 | Updated on 08/06/2022
Vaccinated officials can now travel after close contact with someone with COVID-19 provided the trip is “mission-critical”, whereas unvaccinated feds must wait at least five days before travelling. Photo by geraldfriedrich2 via Pixabay

The Biden administration has updated its COVID policy guidance for the federal workforce, making clearer distinctions between vaccinated and unvaccinated employees when it comes to official travel, paid leave, and other areas.  

The Safer Federal Workforce Task Force set out in updated guidance last week that vaccinated staff can travel for official purposes after having been in close contact with someone with COVID-19 provided the trip is “mission-critical”. Unvaccinated employees, however, must quarantine for at least five full days after contact with the infected person and can only be approved to travel in the 6-10 days after contact in “rare circumstances” and if the trip is urgent. In both cases, individuals must test negative for coronavirus and be symptom free before they can travel.  

In previous iterations of the guidance, officials could not undertake business trips for 10 days after close contact with a person with COVID-19 whether vaccinated or not. Though the guidance does not refer to “vaccinated” or “unvaccinated” officials, it does draw a distinction between those who are recommended to quarantine and those who are not, which is based on vaccination status.

The task force – comprising officials from the White House, the Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration – has also told agencies via the updated FAQ section on its website that they must provide paid leave to those who are isolating after a close contact (i.e. those who are not up-to-date with their vaccines) if they cannot work from home.

“Prior to providing such ‘weather and safety leave’ to employees who notify the agency that they have had a known close contact, agencies should advise employees that making a false statement to the agency regarding this matter could result in disciplinary action, up to and including removal from federal service,” the guidance said.

Though the guidance does not expressly say that vaccinated employees can work from their usual workplace alongside colleagues immediately after a close contact – provided they have tested negative – its reference only to those who are not up-to-date with their vaccines in the section about quarantining after a close contact, suggests this is the case.

Biden’s vaccine mandate hits further delay

President Joe Biden signed an executive order mandating COVID-19 vaccines for around 3.5 million federal staff and government contractors in September 2021. Employees were told they must be fully vaccinated or face the possibility of disciplinary action “up to and including removal from service”.  

Read more: US government pushes to resume vaccine mandate enforcement for federal workers

According to the White House, by the start of the year, 98% of federal employees were in compliance with the mandate. However, tens of thousands of employees have either sought exemptions on medical or religious grounds or have not disclosed their vaccination status, in which case they are required to meet additional safety protocols as outlined in the task force’s guidance.

In late January a court issued an injunction against Biden’s mandate, ruling that his administration exceeded its authority by issuing it. That decision was overturned by an appeals court in April on a technicality.

Standard procedure dictates that there be a six-week period before the ruling takes effect, which would have enabled the federal government to resume mandate enforcement at the end of May. However, Feds for Medical Freedom and a union representing some Homeland Security Department employees – which brought the original case – is appealing the decision to reinstate the mandate, causing a delay. Enforcement could resume as early as Friday this week, though this is dependent on a number of factors being presided over by the court.

Read more: Were governments right to introduce COVID-19 vaccine mandates?

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About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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