Thousands of US feds miss vaccine mandate deadline, face discipline

By on 28/10/2021 | Updated on 28/10/2021
VA secretary Denis McDonough said the department has a responsibility to protect veterans’ health and that it “couldn’t allow” unvaccinated employees to undermine that. Photo by Mark C. Olsen, New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs via Flickr

The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is to start disciplining employees after it found that 30% of its 380,000-strong health care workforce had not met the deadline to prove their vaccination status.

The VA secretary Denis McDonough announced in July that all health care personnel who work in Veterans Health Administration (VHA) facilities, visit them, or provide direct care to veterans would need to prove they had been vaccinated against COVID-19 by 8 October. The deadline was extended by 10 days to enable more staff to provide proof of vaccination or to apply for an exemption.

The VA was the first US department to issue a vaccine mandate. President Biden signed an executive order the following month requiring the entire federal workforce to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by 22 November. As the VA’s deadline has passed before that of other departments, it is being viewed as a test case by the government.

McDonough said last week that only 70% of VHA employees had shared their vaccination status, though he conceded that some employees opted to submit paper forms, which supervisors may yet to have uploaded into VA’s systems. The VA reported earlier this month that 88% of its health care workforce had said they were vaccinated but that was based on data from self-reported “attestation forms” rather than official documents.

Opportunity to comply

The 30% of VHA staff who have yet to provide documentation would be “getting a visit to make sure that they get their data into the system” but those who fail to provide documentation would now face disciplinary action, McDonough warned.  

The White House issued guidance earlier this month on the “enforcement process” for federal government employees who refuse to be vaccinated against COVID-19, which includes counselling, suspension and ultimately dismissal.

McDonough said due to VA’s disparate nature, it was unclear how many of the 114,000 employees who have yet to prove they have been inoculated have entered the first phase of disciplinary action, and that it would be up to frontline managers at local level to decide how and when staff members would be punished.

“They’re required to do it,” McDonough said. “If they choose not to do it, and after we get through the disciplinary process, continue to not do it, they’ll be fired.” 

He said previously that the goal of discipline is to get people vaccinated and that “the last thing we want to do is have to fire trained personnel”.

Terrence Hayes, a VA spokesman, added that each case would be assessed independently, based on the facts and circumstances surrounding that case and any mitigating circumstances.

Exempt from exemption?

McDonough said that the number of employees seeking exemptions on medical or religious grounds far exceeded those sought when the department mandated flu vaccines. He said those asking for exemptions could still be fired in situations where it would leave a health care facility with too few vaccinated staff.

“We have a responsibility, as I said from the beginning, to protect the health of the veterans who come to us for their care,” he said. “We couldn’t allow an unvaccinated employee to work in that setting.”

Many VA employees who spoke to Government Executive when the mandate was announced in July expressed apprehension. They said they begrudged VA for taking away their choice and said they planned to seek exemptions or quit. They also reported tensions between vaccinated and unvaccinated staff, with those who had received their jabs telling those who refused that they should lose their jobs.

McDonough said VA had undertaken planning to mitigate the effects of a large-scale exodus of staff due to firings or staff choosing to leave their jobs.

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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