As most of you likely know, the Biden administration’s federal vaccine mandate has been on hold for a while now due to ongoing court challenges. But that doesn’t mean that people haven’t still been losing their jobs, at least at the Veterans Administration. For reasons we’ll get to in a moment, the VA has been left out of those challenges, so actions against some non-compliant workers have taken place. That may come as a surprise, but additionally interesting is the small number of people who have wound up being impacted. Thus far, as reported at Government Executive this week, only six workers have been sent to the unemployment lines. And it’s not because of some statistically aberrant, high number of vaccinated people. It appears to be a combination of flexibility on the part of the management and a greater degree of patience while letting the process play out.
The Veterans Affairs Department has fired just six employees who refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19, though that number could continue to grow in the coming weeks as it continues enforcement of its mandate.
VA has pushed all of its unvaccinated staff to seek religious or medical exemptions and has not questioned the legitimacy of any of those requests. In some areas, however, such as intensive care units and oncology, the department has decided the risk posed to veterans is too great to allow unvaccinated employees to continue to serve there. VA has mostly offered those workers other positions that interact with less vulnerable patients or did not require in-person attendance, allowing it to actually fire so few staff.
Unlike the vast majority of federal agencies, VA has never paused its enforcement of its COVID-19 mandate for its health care workforce. A federal judge enjoined the requirement issued by President Biden for the rest of the federal workforce, but VA had issued its own mandate independently of that executive order. An appeals court has overturned that injunction for the federal workforce at-large, but governmentwide enforcement of the mandate is still on hold as the legal process plays out.
As it turns out, when Joe Biden issued his blanket vaccination mandate covering all federal workers, the VA made arrangements to issue its own vaccine mandate, citing the high number of employees they had working directly with patients as requiring special considerations. So even after the courts put the the broader mandate on hold, the VA mandate wasn’t challenged. Therefore it remained in effect.
So if their mandate has been in place all of this time, how did so few people wind up being shown the door? There is a combination of factors. For one thing, the VA actively encouraged those who had objections to file for either medical or religious exemptions from the mandate. They reportedly didn’t question anyone’s reasons for needing an exemption and those applications are still making their way through the process. (No data has yet been released on how many if any requests were approved.)
Further, even the unvaccinated people who didn’t request an exemption were not all immediately dismissed. Some who had jobs directly treating patients were considered too great of a risk to the patients’ health, but they were frequently offered other assignments not involving direct contact and allowed to remain on the payroll. (Which seems very nice of the VA if you ask me.)
Of the six people who were fired, four of them refused to wear a mask indoors while that requirement was in place, so their discharge was not due to the vaccine mandate. Another was going to be allowed to continue working if they submitted weekly negative tests. The worker refused to provide test results and was dismissed. The last one simply refused to respond to any requests or provide any information about their vaccination status at all.
Even if you disagree with the vaccine and mask mandates, since the VA was in a position of needing to work within the existing system, we might find those few incidents to be excusable. And everyone else was able to find some sort of accommodation. I can’t help but wonder if a lot of the angst and fireworks that came about as a result of all of these mandates might have been significantly more low-key if the entire government had taken a more lenient approach like this while still encouraging as many workers as possible to consider getting vaccinated and following other protocols, regardless of their actual efficacy. But once the executive orders started rolling out and the White House took its “my way or the highway” approach, is it any wonder that a lot of people stiffened their backs and decided to take the fight to them?
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