The U.S. personnel office is working with agencies to determine the best way to implement President Joe Biden’s recent mandate that federal employees must verify they are vaccinated against COVID-19 or face workplace testing and restrictions.
“There will be more information to come to support agencies. There is a constant back and forth, of course, between the [Safer Federal Workforce] task force and agencies,” Office of Personnel Management Director Kiran Ahuja said in an Aug. 4 call with reporters.
“So there’s just a lot of interplay of getting a lot of that feedback from the agency components, and certainly now that there’s additional requirements around testing, around vaccinations.”
Biden’s July 29 requirement outlines that employees who refuse to attest to their vaccination status or are not vaccinated will face restrictions, such as regular testing, mask requirements, social distancing from co-workers and travel restrictions. But the order did not set a timeframe or system for agencies to implement those changes.
“There are more questions than answers, I think, at this point. But folks are hard at work in trying to give as much information but also give agencies as much flexibility, because the workforce differs from agency to agency, but also within agencies,” said Ahuja.
“We want agencies to be very purposeful, really tie themselves to the principles around how they think through what this will look like for not only their agency but for individual components. That is going to vary.”
Some factors that could affect agency vaccine and testing requirements may include the number of employees still working remotely, the proximity to other employees in the workplace and the testing plan for each agency.
Federal employee unions, however, should expect guidance that satisfies their concerns around cooperation.
“I will say that what is emphasized is the union partnership at the agency level and to engage the local unions to make ensure that you are bargaining on those pieces of your reentry that will require that type of engagement,” said Ahuja.
The spread of the delta variant has caused infection rates of the virus to resurge in recent weeks in some areas with larger unvaccinated populations.
According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, the July 30 total of 105,347 new cases represented the highest total since Feb. 6 of this year.
But Ahuja said that existing federal guidance on model safety procedures during the pandemic should be flexible enough to accommodate for increasing virus infections.
“If you look at the guidance itself, it’s really high level in encouraging agencies to think about flexibility, about both balancing support of the workforce and their mission to deliver,” said Ahuja. “I don’t see that changing drastically at this point.”
The OPM website still lists the nationwide operating status as, “open with maximum telework flexibilities to all current telework eligible employees” at the discretion of agency leaders.
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.