Federal employees, predominantly from the Bureau of Prisons, held a protest outside the Department of Justice Oct. 29 to decry the lack of collective bargaining they have received over President Joe Biden’s mandate that all federal employees receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

The employees, represented by the American Federation of Government Employees, say they’re worried the inability to negotiate over the details of the mandate could lead to mass resignations or firings from agencies that are already short-staffed.

“We felt like with a pro-union administration, they would bargain with us over it, they would come to the table and bargain over religious exemptions and medical, how that’s supposed to look, what kind of evidence you’re supposed to have, who’s going to make the decision,” Philip Glover, national vice president of AFGE District 3, told Federal Times.

Under the mandate, agencies were supposed to reach out to employee unions as soon as possible to resolve any collective bargaining conflicts, but Glover said his people were simply notified of the mandate, rather than given a chance to bargain.

“I’m not saying let’s not get [vaccinated]. But if in September the order would have been, ‘Not a suggestion, sit down with your unions and work this out,’ you’d have probably been done with most of this stuff by December – mediation, impasse – that stuff could’ve all been done,” said Glover.

Some agencies have moved to fully bargain with their employee unions, but the Nov. 22 deadline for vaccination puts a short timeframe on those negotiations.

“Our agency actually has now decided to go to the table to negotiate with us. But it’s a matter of two weeks before our drop-dead date,” said Brandy Moore, national secretary treasurer for AFGE Council of Prison Locals 33, adding that the agency has already informed them they cannot alter the vaccine timeframe or the disciplinary process.

That disciplinary process also won’t include the Douglas Factors, the union was informed, which usually take into account variables like the length an employee has served, their past performance record and whether they have been disciplined before when determining the appropriate disciplinary response.

According to Glover and others at the protest, many agencies have been vague about what constitutes a valid exemption and what kind of proof is necessary, leaving employees confused as the deadline to get vaccinated approaches.

“There is truly no clarity, and it caused a lot of chaos and a lot of confusion. I know there were more religious requests than medical requests, but outside of a couple of Department of Justice memos, there’s really been no guidance whatsoever. None of our religious reasonable accommodations have been approved as of this point, to the best of my knowledge, across the bureau,” said Moore.

Glover noted bargaining unit employees at the Department of Homeland Security have not received any standards for accommodations at the agency.

And for agencies like BOP and TSA, the potential for large numbers of employees to quit or get fired due to vaccine mandates could cause significant problems for already understaffed locations.

“In Lewisburg, [West Virginia] we already had 20 people come down because of the mandate and put in their retirement. And they’re already probably 20 percent short staffed at Lewisburg,” said Glover.

“Same with TSA. We’re seeing a real hesitancy with some of the TSA units with getting the vaccine. And a lot of those people are part time, so they’ll just go find another part-time job. They’re not getting Title 5 pay and benefits,” he said.

Moore noted that approximately 240 of the 550 employees working at her home location put in applications for exemption. If those applications aren’t approved and applicants choose to resign rather than get vaccinated, there could be “no way to run that prison.”

“People are scared, they’re scared of taking something that just came out,” said Pamela Millwood, local president for FCI Jesup, noting at her location, some people missed the accommodation filing window because they were out on some form of leave.

Glover said the union has been surprised that an administration that has described itself as “the most pro-union administration in the history of America” didn’t ensure agencies would bargain over these issues.

“We just came out of four years of that. We argued for four years about bargaining, and now we’re doing this,” he said.

“I would hope that the administration would say, ‘You know what, let’s sit down at the table, extend the mandate out until these things are done.’ That’s what they ought to do.”

Jessie Bur covers the federal workforce and the changes most likely to impact government employees.

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