EPA will not enforce President Biden’s Covid-19 vaccine mandate for federal employees for the time being as the administration challenges a court-ordered halt to the requirement.
On Friday, a federal judge in Texas issued a nationwide injunction against Biden’s executive order that called on government workers to get vaccinated against the virus or request an exception from the mandate for medical or religious reasons.
Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe told EPA employees in an internal email that the Justice Department had appealed the decision but the agency was stepping back from acting on the order for now.
“At this time, the federal government will take no action to implement or enforce the COVID-19 vaccination requirement,” McCabe said in the email sent earlier today. “EPA is suspending its consideration of the requests for medical and religious exemptions filed by employees and the enforcement process for employees who have not complied with the Executive Order.”
Judge Jeffrey Brown of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, who was nominated by former President Trump, issued the injunction. He said in an opinion that he believes people should be vaccinated against Covid-19 but that the federal government does not have the authority to require it of its employees.
“It is instead about whether the President can, with the stroke of a pen and without the input of Congress, require millions of federal employees to undergo a medical procedure as a condition of their employment,” the judge said. “That, under the current state of the law as just recently expressed by the Supreme Court, is a bridge too far.”
Brown was referring to the Supreme Court ruling earlier this month that tossed another Biden action on vaccines, which required employers with 100 or more workers to either have them get their shots or be tested for the virus.
The Biden administration has touted the success from the president’s vaccine mandate for federal employees. Ninety-eight percent of the federal workforce has complied with the order, meaning they either have had at least one Covid-19 vaccination dose or have sought a medical or religious exemption.
“Obviously, we are confident in our legal authority here,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Friday when asked about the ruling.
Biden issued the order in September. It mandated all federal employees be vaccinated against Covid-19 by Nov. 22 last year.
If they didn’t comply with the order, including by seeking an exemption, they could face disciplinary action from their agencies, up to being fired from government service. The administration later advised agencies to hold off enforcing the order’s toughest penalties, like suspensions and removals, against their employees until this year (Greenwire, Nov. 30, 2021).
EPA has one of the higher vaccination rates among federal agencies. Ninety-five percent of the agency’s employees are vaccinated against Covid-19, according to an email sent earlier this month, meaning they have had at least one shot.
EPA still has had its struggles with the pandemic as the vast majority of its employees work from home to avoid exposure to the virus. The agency has now twice delayed plans to have its nonbargaining unit employees return to the office as there has been a spike in Covid-19 cases from its more transmissible variant, Omicron (E&E News PM, Jan. 13).
In her email today, McCabe told staff that the injunction doesn’t change other safety measures for the virus, including masking, physical distancing and testing, which EPA will continue to enforce. She also noted the federal government has begun offering free N-95 masks and at-home test kits for Covid-19.
“As we move through this together, please take care and stay safe,” McCabe said.