A senior Interior Department official told Bureau of Land Management employees yesterday that they risk being fired if they do not comply with President Biden’s executive order for all federal workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Nov. 22.
The vaccinations are a critical component of Interior’s return-to-work plans — currently being finalized by the agency — that will guide the process for bringing many of its 70,000 employees back to offices over the next five months, Deputy Interior Secretary Tommy Beaudreau said during an online town hall meeting with BLM staff.
“Our reentry plans are based on the best available and current public health guidance, and workplace safety plans will be finalized as part of this process. But they’re based on the expectation of vaccinated workers as directed by President Biden,” Beaudreau said during the hourlong meeting listened to by E&E News.
That’s why it is “really, really important” that all Interior employees get vaccinated — or obtain an authorized medical exemption — and provide proof of vaccination by the Nov. 22 deadline, Beaudreau said.
“This is so important because employees who do not comply with the vaccination requirement, or do not receive the approved exception through the reasonable accommodation process, may be subject to discipline, up to and including removal from federal service, which obviously nobody wants to have happen,” he said.
“We don’t want to lose anyone,” he added. “We’ve been through too much together at this point. We want as many individuals … to get vaccinated so that we can protect our workforce, our families and the communities that we serve.”
It’s not clear what percentage of Interior Department employees have been vaccinated and how many still need to get their shots. Beaudreau did not discuss employee vaccination rates.
An Interior spokesperson declined to comment on the rate of vaccination among agency employees.
But other federal agencies have reported high vaccination rates.
EPA Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe told staffers in an email last month that 87 percent of her agency’s employees have reported receiving vaccine shots (Greenwire, Sept. 30).
The Department of Energy has reported that more than 80 percent of employees are vaccinated (Energywire, Oct. 27).
Beaudreau emphasized the public safety aspects of getting vaccinated, noting during the online session that 5,200 Interior staffers have reported contracting COVID-19 in the past year. “As of this week, 41 of our fellow co-workers have tragically lost their lives” to the deadly virus, he said.
“As everyone, I think, appreciates: You don’t get vaccinated just for yourself or your family, you do it for each other,” he said. “As with all things, we’re both responsible for, and responsible to, each other. And so there’s still time. Please reach out to your supervisor or HR representative if you have plans to get vaccinated that may run over the Nov. 22 deadline.”
Planning a return to work
Beaudreau’s warning comes not only as the deadline for government employees to get vaccinated is fast approaching, but also as Interior and other federal agencies work to finalize their own “reentry” plans for an orderly and safe return to offices next year.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who made brief remarks during the opening and closing of the online town hall, said that Interior plans a phased-in approach to returning employees to federal offices and that it will be spread out “over several months” beginning in January and running through March of next year.
Haaland reiterated that point in an email to staff sent after the town hall meeting that was obtained by E&E News. In it, she wrote that Interior’s “expectation” is that by March “all employees will be reporting to their duty location subject to fulfillment of application labor-management obligations.”
Based on each bureau’s implementation plan, some employees “may be eligible for telework or remote work,” Haaland wrote.
“Each bureau and office will finalize their re-entry plans based on mission requirements and the needs of their employees, and will communicate specific dates to their staff in advance of their expected return to the physical workplace,” she wrote. “We will continue to identify recommendations, innovative ideas, and resources to address employee needs and encourage flexibilities to keep our workforce safe while meeting our mission.”
Biden’s vaccine mandate order has been controversial, as have similar mandates by individual states, public schools and businesses nationwide.
Congressional Republicans have criticized the mandates and questioned whether they will result in some federal agencies becoming short staffed.
Along those lines, House Republicans yesterday sent a letter to Haaland and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asking them to reassess the vaccine mandate for wildland firefighters, saying it could result in some resignations, cutting the firefighting workforce.
Vilsack told lawmakers during a House Agriculture Committee hearing this month that he does not anticipate the vaccine mandate interfering with his agency and that he’s confident most employees will get their shots (E&E Daily, Oct. 8).
“I think that a significant percentage of the workforce at USDA understands and appreciates that our concern is for worker safety,” Vilsack said.
A group of eight workers at Los Alamos National Laboratory last week filed a federal lawsuit against the Department of Energy research lab claiming the vaccine mandate is a violation of their religious liberties (Energywire, Oct. 27). The lab employs about 14,000 people.
The latest federal data shows that 191 million people have been fully vaccinated, although that means tens of millions of eligible Americans have declined the shots despite the fact the vaccines are free, readily available and have been shown to effectively reduce the spread of COVID-19, as well as rates of severe illness and death.
EPA this month invited health experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to talk with employees about the vaccines and to “address common myths and rumors” associated with their safety (Greenwire, Oct. 14).
Beaudreau noted during yesterday’s online session that Interior also will have “public health professionals who can talk with you about the safety of vaccines and answer any questions that you have.”
“We do this because, again, we care about each other,” he said.
Beaudreau said he’s confident employees will get vaccinated by the Nov. 22 deadline.
“I want to thank each of you for your incredible work that you’re doing on behalf of all Americans,” he said. “And I want to thank you in advance for protecting your family, your communities, and the workplace by getting vaccinated.”