WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden announced Thursday that millions of federal workers must show proof of having received a COVID-19 vaccine or submit to regular testing, social distancing, masking and restrictions on travel.
The strict guidelines are aimed at boosting sluggish vaccination rates among the 4 million Americans who draw federal paychecks and to set an example for private employers around the country.
"Right now, too many people are dying or watching someone they love die and say if ‘I’d just got the vaccine,'" Biden said in a somber address from the East Room of the White House. "This is an American tragedy. People are dying who don’t have to die."
Of the more than 4 million federal employees, nearly half are members of the military. Biden said he is directing the Pentagon to determine how and when the COVID-19 vaccine will be made mandatory for members of the U.S. military. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has said at least 70% of the force has gotten at least one dose.
Defense leaders have said that the vaccine will remain voluntary for troops around the world until the Food and Drug Administration gives final approval to the drug. The White House on Thursday said Biden will tell the Defense Department to look at when the COVID-19 shot will be added to the list of vaccines already required for military service members.
Biden is also urging state and local governments to use funds provided by the coronavirus relief package to incentivize vaccinations by offering $100 to individuals who get the shots.
"If incentives help us beat this virus, I believe we should use them," Biden continued. "With incentives and mandates, we will make a huge difference and save a lot of lives."
Biden praised Republican lawmakers who have been vaccinated, noting that "the vaccine was developed and authorized under a Republican administration."
"This is not about red states and blue states," he said. "It’s literally about life and death."
"It's an American blessing that we have vaccines for each and every American. It’s such a shame to squander that blessing," said Biden.
The administration encouraged businesses to follow its lead on incentivizing vaccinations by imposing burdens on the unvaccinated. Rather than mandating that federal workers receive vaccines, the plan will make life more difficult for those who are unvaccinated to encourage them to comply.
Biden announced that small- and medium-sized businesses will receive reimbursements if they offer employees time off to get family members vaccinated.
"Vaccinations are free, safe, and effective to every American. They’ve been available to every adult in this country for more than three months—at locations within 5 miles of 90% of the US population," a White House statement said.
The administration said it is announcing the move now with the hope that it will give agencies enough time to craft their own guidelines and plans for implementation before workers return fully to the office.
A White House official said the conversation around the new vaccine guidance had been in the works for some time and was intended to provide an example for private companies to follow as they get ready for workers to return this fall. But as the White House grapples with a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations driven by the delta variant — it serves as the latest policy shift from the White House during a week of new pandemic mitigation efforts.
On Monday, the Department of Veterans Affairs became the first federal agency to require vaccinations for its health workers.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday reversed its masking guidelines and said that all Americans living in areas with substantial or high coronavirus transmission rates should wear masks indoors, regardless of their vaccination status.
About 60% of American adults have been fully vaccinated. Biden had set a July 4 goal to get at least one shot into the arms of 70% of adults, but the U.S. is still not quite there. The latest figure is 69.3%.
Children under 12 are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine, though Biden repeated his demand that schools fully open this fall. He also said that public health officials do not yet believe Americans need a booster vaccine despite the highly contagious delta variant fueling the surge.
Federal workers and contractor employees are dispersed throughout the nation, including many in states where vaccine skepticism runs high. New York University public service professor Paul Light suggested the new guidance from the Biden administration could help boost vaccination rates in states where there's been significant resistance.
"You can’t throw a stick without hitting a fed in many parts of the country," he said.
Light noted that the government’s influence goes well beyond the people it directly employs. Federal contractors and grant recipients will have to weigh how they’ll adjust to vaccination requirements from Washington.
"If the federal government were to say that everybody who works for the government directly or indirectly must be vaccinated, that’s a massive footprint," Light said.
He estimated that the federal government directly employs 2.2 million full-time civil servants, plus 1.4 million active-duty military personnel and about 500,000 workers in the U.S. Postal Service. Private contractor employees working on federal jobs number about 5 million, and there are 1.8 million other people employed under federal grants.
While the administration hopes the new guidance will boost vaccination rates, having Biden wade squarely into the middle of the ongoing political debate surrounding vaccines could backfire if it further fuels GOP criticism and distrust of the vaccine among the president's detractors.
A recent poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that views on vaccinations divide sharply along party lines, with Republicans far more likely than Democrats to say they have not been vaccinated and definitely or probably won’t be, 43% to 10%.
South Carolina GOP Rep. Ralph Norman, who has resisted the new mask requirements on Capitol Hill, hinted at the fight to come over the new guidelines.
"To require individuals to provide proof of vaccination would be a massive intrusion on the doctor-patient relationship and the privacy of the individual," he said in a statement.
The Biden administration may also have to grapple with legal challenges to the latest guidelines.
The federal workplace is governed by layers of rules and regulations, so private employers as well as state and local governments will be looking at the White House vaccination policy to signal how far they can go without triggering resistance from employees or even lawsuits.
But while the Justice Department and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have both said no federal laws prevent businesses from requiring vaccinations as a condition of employment, litigation is certain to follow workplace mandates, said Sharon Perley Masling, an employment lawyer who leads the COVID-19 task force at Morgan Lewis.
"It’s a really challenging issue for employers," Masling said. "We have seen employers explore a whole range of options, from encouraging vaccinations, to incentivizing vaccinations, to mandating vaccinations for new hires, or for everyone."
Among examples from major companies, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines are requiring new employees to show proof of vaccination. Goldman Sachs is requiring its employees to disclose their vaccination status but is not mandating they be vaccinated. Facebook and Google, however, are requiring employees to show proof of vaccination to return to work.
If an employer does set a hard requirement, employees can ask for an exemption for medical or religious reasons under federal civil rights laws.
According to EEOC rules, the employer must provide "reasonable accommodation that does not pose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business." Some accommodations could include masking up at work, social distancing, working a modified shift, regular COVID-19 testing or the option to work remotely, or even offering a reassignment.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.