US federal workers could be disciplined – or fired – for lying about vaccination status

By on 10/08/2021 | Updated on 10/08/2021
The Biden administration has launched a form for federal employees to declare their COVID-19 vaccination status. Credit: National Guard photo by Master Sgt. John Hughel, Oregon Military Department Public Affairs/Flickr

US federal employees could face tough penalties – including disciplinary action, losing their jobs and even criminal proceedings – if they lie on a new COVID-19 vaccination certificate, according to recent guidance from a task force set up by the Biden administration.

The Safer Federal Workforce Task Force – which is led by the White House COVID-19 Response Team, the General Services Administration and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) – recently updated the frequently asked questions (FAQs) on its website.

Agencies should ask employees to share their COVID-19 vaccination status using a new form, according to the instructions. There are four options for employees to tick: fully vaccinated; not yet fully vaccinated; not vaccinated; and decline to respond.

An individual’s vaccination status will dictate what safety measures they need to abide by. Fully vaccinated employees, for example, “do not need to physically distance, undergo screening testing, or have restrictions on their official travel”, the FAQs say.

The guidance on mask wearing for fully vaccinated employees depends on transmission rates. If those who are fully vaccinated are in an area where there is high COVID-19 transmission, they will need to wear a mask in indoor public areas. This will not be required in areas of low transmission.

“Fully vaccinated individuals might choose to wear a mask regardless of the level of transmission for a variety of reasons,” the guidance notes.

The measures in place for unvaccinated individuals, or those who will not share their vaccination status, are more stringent. This includes a mandate to wear masks whatever the transmission rates, adhere to physical distancing, undergo testing once or twice a week and have their official travel restricted.

Even employees who telework or work remotely will need to fill out the vaccination certificate. Indeed, if federal employees visit another agency they will be treated as visitors and will therefore need to complete the certification form there. Under these circumstances, “if they are not fully vaccinated or decline to disclose their status, they would need to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test result within the past three days,” the guidance says.

The impact of the move could be significant. There are an estimated 2.1 million civilian employees in the federal workforce, according to the OPM.

Penalties for federal workers

The guidance also sets out the punishments for employees who make a “false statement” on the form, noting that they “could be subject to an adverse personnel action, up to and including removal from their position”.

The FAQs add that it is a “federal crime… for anyone to provide false information on the form”. Referencing the same law, the form itself asks those signing it to attest that they understand that “a knowing and willful false statement on this form can be punished by fine or imprisonment or both”.

The FAQs note that “falsification could also affect continuing eligibility for access to classified information or for employment in a national security position”.

Agencies do not, however, need to verify an employee’s vaccination status. That said, they may “request documentation” for an investigation into an alleged false statement.

Contractors

Under most circumstances, federal contractors will also need to fill out the form, but agencies should not collect the information, unless they have the necessary system of records notice. Instead, contractors will need to complete the form and “keep it with them during their time on federal premises”, the new guidance says.

The form for contractors is slightly different to the one for employees. It nonetheless notes the same penalties as above.

The safety protocols are also similar. If contractors are not fully vaccinated or do not share their status, they too will have to physically distance, wear a mask whatever the transmission rates and provide proof of a negative test from the last three days, according to the form.

There is no set date for rolling out the certification form in the guidance. “Agencies may take a reasonable period of time to establish a programme for determining the vaccination status of employees and onsite contractors consistent with this guidance,” the FAQs note.

About Kate Hodge

Kate is a journalist and editor, holding roles at both the Guardian and the Financial Times. She specialised in education and combines writing, commissioning and editing with social media and audience engagement. If you have any ideas you would like to pitch, or suggestions to improve the website, feel free to email her on [email protected]

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