Biden gives contractors leeway on COVID-19 vaccine mandate

White House guidance says federal contractors can decide how to handle employees who refuse to comply

A volunteer administers a coronavirus vaccine at a mass vaccination site in the parking lot of Six Flags in Prince George's County, Md., earlier this year.  The White House has set a Dec. 8 deadline for contractors to implement vaccination requirements.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A volunteer administers a coronavirus vaccine at a mass vaccination site in the parking lot of Six Flags in Prince George's County, Md., earlier this year. The White House has set a Dec. 8 deadline for contractors to implement vaccination requirements. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 1, 2021 at 3:29pm

Federal contractors can use their discretion in deciding how to handle an employee who refuses to get the COVID-19 vaccine, according to guidance released by the White House on Monday.

If a government contractor's employee refuses to get vaccinated and does not have a pending request for an accommodation, there is no one protocol for the employer to follow. The administration suggests counseling and education, followed by additional disciplinary measures, if necessary. Firing an unvaccinated employee should occur only after additional noncompliance, the White House says.

In September, President Joe Biden announced a plan to require federal contractors to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The White House set a Dec. 8 deadline for contractors to implement requirements.

Regardless of whether employees are vaccinated, they still must follow all other workplace safety protocols, such as mask-wearing and distancing. Federal agencies can also bar a contractor employee from entering a federal workplace.

The government will defer to contractors to determine whether an employee’s claimed exemptions, such as a medical condition or religious accommodation, are legitimate. Employers are allowed to grant short extensions in limited circumstances for medical reasons, such as if a worker received monoclonal antibodies or convalescent plasma for COVID-19 treatment, the guidance said.

These relatively relaxed guidelines come amid pushback against the administration’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Several Republicans on Capitol Hill have pushed back against Biden’s vaccine mandates, warning of worker shortages and government overreach.

The vaccine requirements must be reflected in any new federal contracts beginning Nov. 14. For any employment contract awarded between Oct. 15 and Nov. 14, agencies can encourage vaccination. Agencies are strongly encouraged to incorporate a vaccine requirement into any contracts not covered by the executive order, such as a subcontract for the manufacturing of products.

The White House is also inching closer to enforcing its mandate for private businesses with 100 employees or more to require their workers to get the vaccine or a weekly test. The Office of Management and Budget completed its final review of the rule on Monday, but has yet to release the final text of the emergency temporary standard.

That rule will be implemented through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and is expected to cover up to two-thirds of the private workforce.