WASHINGTON — The Biden administration has told federal agencies that they generally should not require their employees to be vaccinated against the coronavirus to work on-site in federal buildings or to disclose whether they are vaccinated.
Employees who disclose they are unvaccinated or refuse to answer a voluntary question about vaccination status should be subject to safety requirements such as mask-wearing and social distancing, new guidance says.
“The Administration strongly encourages all Americans, including Federal employees and contractors, to be vaccinated,” says a Tuesday posting by an interagency task force overseeing pandemic-related policies for the federal workplace. However, “at present, COVID-19 vaccination should generally not be a pre-condition” for federal employees or contractors to work in person, it states, while not specifying possible exceptions.
The guidance is the latest evolving workplace policy regarding the 2.1 million-employee federal workforce as pandemic conditions ease and vaccination rates rise. It comes as the Biden administration is expected to release a broader policy about when and how federal employees can return to the office and remote work going forward.
Most recently, in response to updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the task force had said that fully vaccinated federal and contractor employees no longer need to wear masks or practice social distancing on-site except where separate policies apply such as health-care facilities.
According to the latest guidance, federal employees and contractors may voluntarily share information about their vaccination status, “but agencies should not require federal employees or contractors to disclose such information. Responding to agency inquiries should be voluntary” and agencies are to comply with legal requirements and bargaining obligations.
“When an employee or contractor voluntarily discloses that they are unvaccinated or declines to provide vaccination information, agencies should use that information to implement CDC-recommended mitigation measures, including masking and physical distancing,” it says.
The task force guidance for federal agencies comes after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission put out its own guidance this month saying that companies are permitted to require vaccines of employees who return to the office.
But so far many private companies have held back, wary of the fraught politics surrounding vaccine mandates and the untested legal issues involving vaccines cleared under the Food and Drug Administration’s emergency authority.
The new federal workforce guidance — the first government-wide statement of policy on these issues — did not state why the administration has determined that it should not require vaccination.
The Defense Department, the largest federal agency, said in April that managers generally should not ask employees about their vaccination status. An exception, it said, would be to determine “how long an employee with a known or suspected exposure must temporarily remain out of the workplace.”
That department is one of the few that collects and posts data on vaccinations among its employees: Out of a civilian workforce of some 770,000, about 250,000 are fully vaccinated and an additional 60,000 are partly vaccinated, according to the latest figures. The actual total is probably greater because those numbers only include employees who were vaccinated through the Defense Department or who reported being vaccinated elsewhere.
Although remote work by federal employees has declined since peaking last year, it remains high by historic standards, amid pressure from congressional lawmakers to recall more employees to their offices.