GOP blasts vaccine mandate, and defense contractors are fretting

But administration points to outcome of mandates by companies such as United Airlines

Alabama GOP Sen. Tommy Tuberville wants a hearing on the vaccine mandate's impact on the defense contracting workforce. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Alabama GOP Sen. Tommy Tuberville wants a hearing on the vaccine mandate's impact on the defense contracting workforce. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted October 28, 2021 at 7:00am

Republican lawmakers on the Armed Services committees are ramping up their attacks on President Joe Biden's vaccine mandates for government contractors, warning that it could prompt the firing of critical workers and threaten military readiness. 

Defense contractors are buttressing those claims, saying they fear losing thousands of staff who help protect the nation.

In the latest move in the debate, Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama on Wednesday wrote to Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, to ask for a hearing on how contractors can meet Biden's Dec. 8 deadline and still function effectively.

“Thousands of small contractors for the Department of Defense face an excruciating choice in the coming weeks: fire employees who refuse to take the relatively new COVID vaccine or face the loss of contracts from the Pentagon,” Tuberville wrote in the letter, which was obtained by CQ Roll Call. “This untenable position, playing out across the country, threatens our national security.”

The vaccine mandate’s effect on coronavirus rates in America would almost certainly be beneficial, but its impact on defense contractors could be adverse. And that is shaping up as an issue that senators are poised to debate when they take up their version of the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, a GOP aide said.

“Information gleaned from a hearing like this could inform an amendment to the NDAA, and if the Senate is going to act to fix this issue, understanding the issue before floor activity is critical,” the aide said.

GOP pushback

Republicans are pushing back hard against virtually all federal vaccine mandates — for U.S. troops, federal civilians and government contractors alike — as well as some other restrictions and requirements aimed at curbing the virus's spread.

Several times in the past week, Senate Republicans have sought unsuccessfully to get unanimous consent on the floor to debate bills overturning sundry mandates. 

Moreover, James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, expressed concern in an Oct. 18 letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III about the Pentagon’s vaccine mandates and said no one should be let go for refusing a jab “until the ramifications of mass dismissal are known.”

Tuberville, for his part, has become perhaps the Senate’s leading voice for part of that protest: the defense industry’s struggles to comply with the mandate ahead of a deadline that is now just over a month away. 

Tuberville, whose state is home to 5,000 defense contractors, wrote Biden on Oct. 26 urging him to “remove — or at a minimum delay and clarify” his administration’s vaccine mandate for at least those contractors who work for the Department of Defense.

Four days before that, 11 Republican House members had written Biden a similar letter.

“We strongly urge you to reconsider the manner in which you are seeking to address this issue so as not to harm the livelihood of civilian contractors, industry partners, and strategic goals of our armed services,” wrote the representatives, 10 of whom are Armed Services members. “Don’t miss the forest for the trees.” 

A coming ‘reckoning?’

Defense companies across the country, especially smaller ones but even executives at major trade associations, are confused about how to comply with the vaccine mandate, which has rolled out in a series of directives from the White House and Pentagon in the past seven weeks. 

Contractor representatives say they are not weighing in publicly on whether a mandate should exist or not. They say they just want clarity and flexibility on how to comply. 

They also say they expect thousands of highly skilled employees to quit or be fired in the coming weeks because the workers refuse to be vaccinated. That, they contend, could hamper critical defense programs. 

Wes Hallman, vice president of strategy and policy at the National Defense Industrial Association, which represents about 1,600 corporations and 70,000 people, said his organization is trying to assess the fallout from the administration’s mandate.

“There are going to be people in the workforce that choose not to get vaccinated, and they will walk off their job,” Hallman said in an interview. “Especially with smaller companies, those are some highly skilled, security-cleared folks that are not easy to replace. There will be impacts.” 

Mark Cancian, a defense industry expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the administration should try incentives before punishments in seeking defense industry vaccination compliance. 

Cancian, a former Office and Management and Budget official who, like Tuberville, is vaccinated and believes others should be too, predicted adverse impacts from the current course. 

“There is going to be a reckoning as companies realize they are going to be firing large numbers of highly skilled employees because of the mandate,” he said. 

Industry’s many questions

The federal contractors’ mandate has exemptions for people with religious and medical rationales. The companies are not clear on the criteria for the allowable religious and medical exemptions or how to document and report such information, Hallman said. 

There does not appear to be any flexibility, however, for unvaccinated people to work on-site if they can demonstrate negative test results or, alternatively, to work remotely. Many defense companies would like such exceptions permitted. 

The Pentagon contractors are also unsure of which of their subcontractors must also adhere to the mandate.

The industry representatives are also trying to determine how contracts can be adjusted if a company is unable to perform on cost and schedule due to an exodus of employees, Hallman said.

Raytheon Technologies Chairman and CEO Greg Hayes told CNBC on Tuesday that he expects 3 percent of his company’s 125,000 employees working in the United States to refuse vaccines, while another 3 percent are already seeking religious or medical exemptions. If he had to fire all of them, it would mean about 7,500 people. Hayes said the company is working to fill expected vacancies.

Raytheon had already issued its own corporate vaccine mandate, but with a Jan. 1 deadline. 

Navigating how to comply with federal directives, especially new ones that raise a number of questions, is much harder for defense firms that are smaller than Raytheon, several observers said. 

“The big companies get a lot of the focus, but the real concern is for the thousands of smaller firms,” the Senate GOP aide said. “They don’t have the HR resources necessary to comply, and any loss of their workforce could grind their work to a halt.”

‘Noise up front?’

Arnold Punaro, chairman of the National Defense Industrial Association board, in an Oct. 15 memo to the association’s members, said the Biden administration’s message is there will be “noise up front but compliance in the back.” In other words, he wrote, the administration expects the norm to be the experience of United Airlines, where only 300 of 67,000 employees refused shots.

The administration, Punaro wrote, is willing to accept companies losing some employees. But, he said: “Because we know your workforce is your most valuable asset and one that is not easily replaced, NDIA does not agree [that] unnecessarily losing employees is an acceptable risk to our companies.”

Tuberville, meanwhile, urged Reed on Wednesday to convene the requested hearing at the earliest possible date and to invite small-business contractors and Pentagon experts to testify.

“Given the pressing nature of the mandate, the sooner our committee takes steps to hear out the American people on this issue, the better,” Tuberville wrote.