Republican lawmakers fear vaccine mandates could hamper TVA, idle some operations

·6 min read

Oct. 23—Tennesseans could face power outages or other threats to critical infrastructure if the White House doesn't back off its plans for a federal workforce vaccine mandate, according to Republican congressional members in Tennessee.

In a letter to President Joe Biden, four GOP congressmen said the "reckless mandate" for all federal employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine could force drastic staff cuts at the Tennessee Valley Authority, which supplies electricity to nearly 10 million people and controls a network of dams, nuclear plants and transmission lines in its seven-state service territory.

"Our offices have been contacted by countless TVA employees, all expressing their concern over President Biden's Sept.9 executive order mandating all federal employees receive the COVID-19 vaccination, with limited exceptions for religious and medical waivers," U.S. Reps. Chuck Fleischmann of Ooltewah, Scott DesJarlais of Winchester, Mark Green of Portland and John Rose of Cookeville wrote in a joint letter to the president.

"Many TVA employees have expressed their intent to resign due to this mandate, even if it means retraining into different job fields. The unnecessary implications of an understaffed TVA would be devastating and wide-ranging."

TVA said it is following the rules for all federal employees to receive the coronavirus vaccine by Nov. 22 unless workers are able to establish religious or medical objections to such vaccines.

White House officials argue that vaccines are the most effective way to control the spread of the coronavirus, which has already claimed the lives of more than 736,000 Americans, including 16,025 deaths in Tennessee.

"We know how effective vaccines are in preventing not only illness for the individual, but for diminishing the dynamics of the infection in society," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden's chief medical adviser on the virus.

When the vaccine mandate was announced last month, TVA President Jeff Lyash said he was concerned about losing some employees over the mandate, but he said TVA will work its way through the requirement and will offer incentives, information and time for employees to get vaccinated or file for exemptions.

"We have worked with our employees and our unions to come up with a policy that works for our employees and meets the federal guidelines," TVA spokesperson Buddy Eller said.

Similar to other federal agencies, TVA is still developing specific rules for its vaccine mandate. Although Eller said TVA has strongly encouraged its workers to get vaccinated for COVID-19, TVA has not disclosed what share of its workforce is vaccinated.

DesJarlais, a doctor before being elected to Congress in 2010, said he worries 20% to 30% of TVA's 10,000-employee staff may be unvaccinated "and on Nov. 22 they could lose their jobs."

DesJarlais said that could jeopardize operations of the seven nuclear reactors and other power generating and transmission facilities TVA operates across its seven-state region.

"I think there are people at TVA who won't get vaccinated," DesJarlais said Friday. "Statewide, you are looking at 30-40% [of the population] who are not vaccinated and don't plan to be. It's going to be an issue at TVA, at the Arnold Air Force Base [in Tullahoma] and at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, along with many police forces and hospitals."

DesJarlais said Biden should abandon the federal mandate or at least come up with a contingency plan.

"What if we hit this drop-dead date and all of a sudden we jettison 20% or 30% of our military — whatever that ends up being? We can't afford to lose these workers in an already tight labor market," he said. "I'd like to think there is a plan in place if this mandate date comes and all of sudden we're walking out employees and shutting down power grids and nuclear facilities."

Although TVA is an independent federal corporation governed by its own board of directors, Lyash said TVA determined it was covered by the federal mandate and must begin enforcing the new rules by the week of Thanksgiving.

The Nov. 22 deadline for federal employees and a Dec. 8 deadline Biden proposed for federal contractors may not necessarily mean that is when federal employees who are unvaccinated will automatically be fired, according to TVA officials. Federal and TVA rules for the vaccine mandates and how to apply for exemptions on religious or health grounds — or potentially work accommodations or testing procedures for those who are unvaccinated — have not yet been implemented.

Similar vaccine mandates have led some workers to quit their jobs at other employers rather than get the vaccine.

United Airlines terminated 320 employees last month because of the company's COVID-19 vaccine mandate. But the airline also said more than 99% of its U.S. workforce of 67,000 had been vaccinated, not counting the roughly 2,000 who have applied for religious or medical exemptions.

Other employers also report success with mandates. Tyson Foods, New York City schools, major hospital systems in Maine and the NBA are among those with vaccination rates topping 90%.

But vaccination hesitancy appears greater in Tennessee, where 47.2% of the state's population is fully vaccinated and 54.1% of residents have had at least one dose as of Friday. Nationwide, more than two-thirds of the U.S. population has had at least one vaccine shot and 57.7% of residents are fully vaccinated for the COVID-19 virus.

U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., also urged Biden to abandon government-imposed vaccine mandates, which he said violate individual freedoms and threaten to undermine the economy.

"The mandate is going to create unanticipated operational dislocation all across America," Hagerty said during a visit to Southeast Tennessee on Friday. "If you look at the slowdown that Southwest Airlines experienced just a week ago, I'm afraid that is going to happen elsewhere. If you take even a single-digit percentage of the workforce out, particularly if it happens on the single day when the mandate deadline is hit, I think it is going to be extraordinarily disruptive."

Both Southwest Airlines and the employees' union have said COVID-19 vaccine mandates had nothing to do with the cancellations and delays the airline experienced.

Hagerty said he doesn't think the federal mandate will withstand legal challenges in court.

Both Hagerty and DesJarlais said they have been vaccinated and urged Tennesseans to get the vaccine.

"But if a person has come to a different decision about their personal health, I respect that," Hagerty said.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

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