Biden’s Vaccine Mandate for Federal Workers Met with Mixed Reactions

A woman holds a sign voicing various conspiracy theories believed by QAnon followers out of the sunroof of a car at the "Reopen Virginia" protest in Richmond on April 22nd, 2020. Three Percenters are a movement that advocates for constitutional rights, and takes its name from the belief that only three percent of America took up arms against the British during the Revolutionary War. (Photo by Matthew Rodier/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

On Thursday afternoon, President Joe Biden announced new mandates when it comes to the Wuhan coronavirus. Gaining particular attention is how all federal employees are required to be vaccinated, the alternative being for such workers to wear a mask, maintain social distancing, and submit to regular testing. 

Katie, who covered the White House announcement, also reported on a statement from the American Workers Postal Union, which took a position against such a mandate, “at this time.” The statement also made clear that negotiations were in order. “Issues related to vaccinations and testing for COVID-19 in the workplace must be negotiated with the APWU.”

Regardless of whether specific unions are for or against the mandate or do not yet take a stance, a common theme is an insistence that “negotiations” take place.

For the American Federation of Government Employees, this means “prior to implementation.”

Emily Knopp of CQ Roll Call suggested that the statement is “cautiously positiv

Another union emphasizing the need for negotiations is the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). A Monday statement from Randi Weingarten, president of AFT read in part:

“In order for everyone to feel safe and welcome in their workplaces, vaccinations must be negotiated between employers and workers, not coerced. We believe strongly that everyone should get vaccinated unless they have a medical or religious exception, and that this should be a mandatory subject of negotiation for employers to keep their employees safe and build trust. But healthcare professionals are concerned that mandating vaccines outside contract negotiation will only result in more people leaving the bedside at a time when staffing levels are already low from the trauma of the past year. This makes vaccine advocacy more important than ever, and medical professionals must be on the front lines of correcting the rampant vaccine disinformation campaign that is costing American lives.”

Interpretation of the reactions from various unions depends on the kind of coverage, and from when.

For instance, Todd Shields reported for Bloomberg that “Federal Worker Unions Back Vaccine Mandates Amid Local Backlash,” on Wednesday, so before the actual announcement from the White House.

While Jim Pasco, the executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) pointed out that “science has proven vaccines to work,” he also said they wouldn’t tell people what to do. “The position of national FOP is that the vaccine works, and we strongly suggest that anybody who can get it should,” Pasco said. “We’re a union. We don’t tell people what to do.”

The FOP website also highlights that 510 law enforcement officers have died from the virus. A brief message from FOP President Patrick Yoes also appears on the home page, reading “COVID-19 is affecting each of us in different ways but we all play a part in reducing its spread and defeating this virus! Rest assured, together, we will prevail!”

Other union leaders talked about rights, but in the context that those who don’t wish to be vaccinated forfeit that right not to be:

“We’ve got over 600,000 people dead as a result of this epidemic, and these vaccinations have been proven to be safe,” Paul Shearon, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, said in an interview. “Their right not have to have a vaccination ends when their illness puts our people at risk [sic].”

The IFPTE also issued a formal statement, which in part read:

As a union representing federal workers it is incumbent upon us to make sure that our members’ workplaces are safe and healthy. We don’t think either our members or their mission should be placed at risk by those who have been hesitant to take a shot.

We do believe legitimate health and religious reasons exist for not getting vaccinated, but those individuals who fall into those categories should be regularly tested and must remain masked and practice social distancing while on the job. We believe that the president’s executive order will allow for those exceptions.

This is not an easy decision President Biden made, but it’s the right one for our members and for the nation.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is mentioned in the Bloomberg piece, for having already addressed the mandate, during a C-SPAN interview on Tuesday, calling it “a very acceptable way to do that,” referring to how what they “need to do now is to get more people vaccinated.”

Shields’ reporting also included a legal perspective:

State and local authorities generally have broad powers to require vaccinations, but there’s a debate over whether the federal government has that power while the inoculation is being used on an emergency basis, as it is now, said Mike Jones, a Philadelphia-based an employment attorney with Eckert Seamans. 

Once a vaccine receives full approval from the Food and Drug Administration “there’s no question at that point that the government can impose a mandate” for federal workers to receive the vaccination, said Jones. 

However, the administration would still need to negotiate how a mandate is implemented, and “under some circumstances” unions could stop the plan. It would depend on nuances of state, federal and local law, and the wording of contracts, Jones said. 

The so-called requirement expected from the White House is in fact “really a strong encouragement,” said Jones. 

“It’s an inducement to go out and get the vaccine for people that are persuadable,” Jones said. “It’s not an easy sell. The people that don’t want to get vaccinated strongly and emotionally hold that position.”

Emotions surrounding Covid mandates are complex, and “you will see it vary” by bargaining unit, Jones said.

On Thursday, however, shortly after the mandate was announced, Eli Rosenberg reported for The Washington Post that “Biden’s vaccine rule meets resistance from large groups of federal workers.”

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The FOP is not the only law enforcement officer union to take issue with the mandate. “The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA), which represents more than 26,000 federal officers, has blasted the idea, saying that it believes requiring vaccinations represented an infringement on civil rights,” Rosenberg reported.

As a statement from Larry Cosme, president of FLOE, notes they “are concerned by any move” which involves a mandate. Cosme instead urged “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 was particularly firm in his conclusion. “Make no mistake, we support being vaccinated as the most effective path and means to eliminate the COVID-19 virus, but not at the cost of our Constitutional rights that we protect and hold as self-evident.”

“There will be a lot of pushback. It’s going to be an avalanche,” President Larry Cosme said, warning that many of the group’s members at the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security would be opposed.

The mandate will not stop with federal workers. It appears the administration wants private employers to go with such a mandate. 

“President Biden is directing his team to take steps to apply similar standards to all federal contractors. The Administration will encourage employers across the private sector to follow this strong model,” a fact-sheet from the White House noted. 

Military members could also be affected. “Today, the President will announce that he is directing the Department of Defense to look into how and when they will add COVID-19 vaccination to the list of required vaccinations for members of the military.”