Thousands of federal workers seek religious exemptions to avoid coronavirus vaccines. – The Washington Post
With a Monday deadline looming, high percentages of federal workers are reporting they have been vaccinated against the coronavirus. But tens of thousands of holdouts have requested exemptions on religious grounds, complicating President Biden’s sweeping mandate to get the country’s largest employer back to normal operations.
A Texas-based IRS affinity group, Christian Fundamentalist Internal Revenue Employees, wrote a four-page letter to the official handling exemption requests, citing scripture and mistrust of the government among African Americans, as well as falsely claiming thousands of deaths from the coronavirus vaccine.
Exemption requests have become the go-to alternative for those opposed to the vaccine because managers must hold off on any discipline while requests are reviewed. With a Nov. 22 deadline for employees to show proof of full vaccination status, Monday is the deadline to get a Johnson & Johnson shot or a second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.
How to fairly and legally weigh the surging requests and determine who receives an exemption has consumed federal attorneys, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), unions and outside lawyers helping employees with the process. The deliberations are particularly acute as the government tries to balance the right to religious freedom against the goal of creating safe workplaces for 2.1 million civilian employees.
Managers will soon assume the thorny role of deciding whether someone is sincere or requesting an exemption for political reasons. In a directive issued in January, the EEOC said the objections do not have to stem from an organized religion and can be beliefs that are new, uncommon or “seem illogical or unreasonable to others.”
Officials estimate that most unvaccinated employees who have not quit or retired by this point are seeking an exemption. The IRS informed its employees in an email Wednesday that unvaccinated people should expect counseling letters, followed after Nov. 23 by proposed suspensions and removals beginning in December for those still not in compliance.
But the government has never faced anything on the scale of the coronavirus pandemic as it attempts to stand up a coast-to-coast vaccine mandate with a politicized, contagious disease still spreading, large swaths of the workforce seeking a way out and potentially dire effects on day-to-day operations if employees are fired for noncompliance in large numbers.
“These aren’t typical accommodation requests like giving someone an ergonomic chair,” said Cathie McQuiston, deputy general counsel for the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union with 700,000 members. “It’s not just about the employee, but the impact on co-workers and their right to a safe workplace, and agencies have to be consistent.”
If a request is turned down, the employee must decide whether to get vaccinated or risk losing their job. If the request is granted, the unvaccinated worker must wear a mask, socially distance at the office and be tested regularly. The administration has not yet said who will pay for those tests or where they will be administered. Even with much of the government still working from home due to the pandemic, telework is not supposed to be an approved excuse for being unvaccinated.
The Biden administration has been reluctant to offer many details about how its program is progressing. The Washington Post asked ten civilian agencies for information on their vaccine rates and exemption requests as of last week; nine either did not respond or declined to disclose them. The agencies issued identical statements that said they were “laser-focused on vaccinating their workforce” by Nov. 22, at which point the administration says it will make more information public. Agencies have set different deadlines for employees to submit exemption requests, with most Nov. 22 or sooner.
“We are confident in the ongoing implementation of vaccination requirements across the federal government,” said Isabel Aldunate, spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget, which is overseeing implementation of the mandate with the agencies. “Our strategy is working and will help ensure the health and safety of the entire federal workforce.”
Higher rates were found at Veterans Affairs, the first agency to impose a mandate, where 76 percent of the 420,000 employees were fully vaccinated, according to the agency’s website. At the Environmental Protection Agency, 81 percent had been fully vaccinated by last week, and the rate was 78 percent at the IRS in mid-October.
The Defense Department, the largest federal agency with nearly 840,000 employees, said 45 percent of its civilian workforce had received at least one dose. The Air Force, which imposed the most aggressive timeline in the military to immunize all active-duty personnel, reported that about 97 percent received at least one dose by its Nov. 2 deadline, leaving just more than 8,400 unvaccinated.
Defense officials said permanent vaccination exemptions historically have been rare for the military, which requires troops to receive other vaccinations. The Navy has granted only six permanent medical exemptions ahead of its deadline for active sailors Nov. 28, officials said. The active-duty Army, which faces a Dec. 15 deadline, has approved one for medical reasons.
At the IRS, 2,000 of roughly 70,000 employees had filed exemption requests as of mid-October, with the vast majority of them for religious reasons, according to the Professional Managers Association, which represents agency managers. The General Services Administration received about 1,000 requests for religious and medical exemptions, an attorney familiar with the number said, and TSA officials were expecting theirs to number in the thousands in a workforce of 65,000.
The EEOC said in its directive that the sincerity of an employee’s stated religious belief usually is not in dispute. Experts in civil rights law said an agency’s decision will come down to an employee’s credibility. Some managers are asking whether employees received vaccines for other illnesses such as the flu, officials said.
At Veterans Affairs, McDonough said that while it will not “question the legitimacy of any employees’s religious exemption,” the agency will dismiss someone when “an unvaccinated employee poses a risk to the health of our veterans … This would present an undue hardship to us and ultimately to the veteran.”
As TSA scrambled to secure early access to the coronavirus vaccine for its screening officers this spring, Drew Rhoades stepped up to help organize the effort. But Rhoades, a manager in Minnesota, is refusing to get the shot himself, saying in his exemption request that it would conflict with his Christian Science faith, which generally eschews medicine in favor of religious healing.
This content was originally published here.