Federal employees will no longer have the option to receive regular testing in place of a COVID-19 vaccine, as President Joe Biden signed an executive order late Thursday requiring all feds and government contractors to be vaccinated.

“The time for waiting is over,” Biden said. “This is not about freedom or personal choice; it is about protecting yourself and people around you. The bottom line: We’re going to protect vaccinated workers from unvaccinated co-workers.”

Biden’s initial vaccination requirements for the federal government, issued one month ago, required federal employees and contractors working in government buildings to attest to their vaccination status or face weekly testing, masking and distancing requirements. This new order takes that initiative a step further by making vaccination a condition of federal employment, with only exceptions that are required by law.

As the head of the federal government, Biden has the legal right to issue a vaccine mandate as a condition of employment, per guidance issued by both the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Justice Department.

Still, a federal labor attorney at Tully and Rinckey told Federal Times when the initial vaccine requirements were announced that an all-out mandate could risk legal challenge from employees that feel vaccination as a condition of employment violates their discrimination and privacy protections.

“NTEU members, like American society at large, will have differing reactions to the new policy. Some employees will disagree. Others will welcome the additional security that comes with knowing that all of their coworkers are vaccinated. Either way, the law is clear that employers, including the federal government, may implement a vaccination requirement for employees,” The national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, Tony Reardon, said in a statement.

“NTEU will monitor closely the implementation of this policy at the agencies where we represent employees to make sure that those with medical and religious exceptions are accommodated. Like always, NTEU will work to eliminate the barriers to vaccination, including having agencies continue to provide employees with duty time to get vaccinated and time off to recover from any potential side effects and, as much as possible, offer vaccinations at the workplace,” Reardon added.

The national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, Everett Kelley, said his union views vaccination as the best way to protect the workforce and that “changes like this should be negotiated with our bargaining units where appropriate” because “workers deserve a voice in their working conditions.”

But not all federal unions support the order, as the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association president, Larry Cosme, said the move “villainizes employees for reasonable concerns and hesitancies,” arguing that the U.S. is well on its way to herd immunity based on voluntary vaccinations.

Republican Reps. James Comer of Kentucky and Jody Hice of Georgia also called a vaccine mandate “wrong” and “efforts to take away personal freedoms.”

Biden has repeatedly stated that he wants his federal workforce policy to serve as a model for the private sector, and many private companies have increased pressure on employees to get a vaccine since Biden’s initial federal mandate.

“Biden’s Order requiring federal workers to obtain the vaccine seems timely; after the FDA has authorized the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine, I’ve seen private sector businesses moving to vaccine mandates. Six months ago, mandates seemed to be rare and employers ‘strongly encouraged’ the vaccine,” Chelsea Smith, labor and employment attorney at the Hall Estill law firm, said in a statement.

The announcement comes as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show COVID-19 cases spiking in recent days to their highest levels since January, predominantly driven by the delta variant of the virus.

Vaccinated people are statistically far less likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19, according to CDC data, which found that 12,908 vaccinated people had to be hospitalized, compared to the nearly 3 million COVID-19 hospital admissions since the start of the pandemic. According to Biden, about one in every 160,000 vaccinated people are hospitalized.

The CDC predicts that COVID-19 deaths could reach over 12,000 per week over the next month.

“We’re in the tough stretch and it could last for a while,” Biden said. “This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

That data also shows that just over 53 percent of people in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, with that number jumping to over 64 percent among adults.

“Vaccinations have been deemed to be effective in mitigating COVID-19 related hospitalizations and deaths. By mandating their use, the federal government is leading, by setting a strong example for other organizations and industry to model,” Senior Executives Association President Bob Corsi said in a statement.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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