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White House may face union pushback on vaccine mandate for federal workers

·White House Correspondent
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WASHINGTON — Some of the country’s largest federal employee unions are split in their reaction to the White House’s latest executive order mandating COVID-19 vaccination for federal employees and contractors.

The executive order, which President Biden plans to sign later Thursday after delivering remarks on the coronavirus, will give current federal employees in the executive branch 75 days to get vaccinated before “progressive disciplinary actions” begin, said White House press secretary Jen Psaki during a briefing with reporters Thursday.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki speaks during a press briefing at the White House on September 09, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
White House press secretary Jen Psaki at the White House on Thursday. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

This latest announcement is part of the White House’s evolving multipronged coronavirus strategy. Earlier this summer Biden announced a federal vaccination mandate that allowed for those who did not wish to get vaccinated an option to instead accept rigorous testing and masking requirements.

Now the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest national federal union, with over 300,00 members, while broadly encouraging all federal employees to get the shot, is taking a hard line with the White House, saying it wants to negotiate with the administration over the mandate. The group made similar calls after Biden’s July announcement.

“The data are clear. Getting vaccinated isn’t just the best way for us to end this pandemic, it is the best way for us to protect each other in the workplace,” AFGE national president Everett Kelley wrote in a statement Thursday, prior to Biden’s remarks.

But Kelley insisted that “changes like this should be negotiated with our bargaining units where appropriate.”

“Put simply, workers deserve a voice in their working conditions. Neither of these positions has changed,” he continued. “We expect to bargain over this change prior to implementation, and we urge everyone who is able to get vaccinated as soon as they can do so.”

When reached by email, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the largest trade union, which represents approximately 1.3 million workers, deferred Yahoo News to Kelley’s statement.

Everett Kelley, national secretary-treasurer of the AFGE, speaks during the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Legislative and Grassroots Mobilization Conference in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, Feb. 10, 2020. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Everett Kelley, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, at a conference in Washington, D.C., in 2020. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The American Postal Workers Union, another sprawling labor union that represents over 200,00 employees and retirees in the United States Postal Service, rejected Biden’s initial July mandate. The group has yet to make a statement on the more stringent executive order and did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“While the APWU leadership continues to encourage postal workers to voluntarily get vaccinated, it is not the role of the federal government to mandate vaccinations for the employees we represent,” the APWU said in July.

One other federal workers’ union indicated a willingness to accept the new changes.

The National Treasury Employees Union, a group that represents 150,000 federal workers, said Thursday that the White House has a “legal right” to issue an executive order requiring vaccinations.

“NTEU will monitor closely the implementation of this policy at the agencies where we represent employees to make sure that those with medical and religious exceptions are accommodated,” NTEU national president Tony Reardon said in an emailed statement to Yahoo News.

The NTEU has previously pushed to extend telework to help protect employees from contracting COVID-19 on the job.

Preventative Medicine Services NCOIC Sergeant First Class Demetrius Roberson administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a soldier on September 9, 2021 in Fort Knox, Kentucky. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)
A soldier receives a COVID-19 shot on Thursday in Fort Knox, Ky. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

The White House is leaving specifics on implementation to leadership of each agency, Psaki said, an approach that will likely force individual agency unions, rather than large interagency federal unions, to do the bulk of negotiating. Unions must work against the clock if they wish to negotiate, however, since the White House’s vaccination window is set to close in November.

And Psaki made the consequences of defying leadership clear.

“There will be limited exceptions for legally recognized reasons: disability or religious objections,” she said, adding that any worker who doesn’t comply “will go through the standard HR process, which includes counseling, and face disciplinary action.”

“Hopefully it won’t come to that,” Psaki said.

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