President Joe Biden has stepped up actions to combat the spread of the surging Delta variant of the coronavirus (Covid-19), asking every US federal worker to either declare they are fully vaccinated against Covid-19 or wear masks and be tested.
“We have the tools to prevent this new wave of Covid-19 from shutting down our businesses, our schools, our society as we saw happen last year,” the veteran Democrat said in a speech on his administration’s new initiatives.
The White House said just ahead of the address that all 4mn federal employees and on-site contractors “will be asked to attest to their vaccination status”.
Those who do not declare they are fully vaccinated will be required to wear a mask on the job regardless of location, physically distance from co-workers, and “comply with a weekly or twice weekly screening testing requirement”.
The moves stop short of a full-on vaccination mandate for federal workers – something that was being considered as the administration was mulling ways to protect federal workers and set an example for the private sector.
However, Biden said the nation needed to remain vigilant.
“We are not fully out of the woods,” he said, urging Americans not to make the issues of vaccination or wearing masks political ones. “This is not about red states and blue states. It’s literally about life and death.”
Biden will direct the Pentagon to study adding Covid-19 vaccinations to its list of required vaccinations for members of the US military.
He also called on state and local governments to offer $100 as an incentive for holdouts to get vaccinated – a nod to what the White House described as successful cash-for-jab efforts already implemented in some states.
The rules regarding getting vaccinated or masking up and getting regularly tested should not just apply to federal workers, with Biden set to urge private sector employers to follow suit, according to the White House.
“The federal government, we see ourselves as a model for other companies and other organisations, and that’s something that we don’t take lightly,” said White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.
The US Treasure Department said that the $100 payments for every newly-vaccinated American are an allowable use of funds from the $350bn in aid granted to state, local, territorial and tribal governments under the American Rescue Plan Act.
The department added that it would provide technical assistance in using these funds to support increased vaccinations.
The Treasury also said it is expanding a tax credit that employers could claim for wages paid to employees to give them paid time off to get vaccinated or to assist family members and certain other individuals with Covid-19 vaccinations.
Earlier, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that anyone getting their first Covid-19 vaccine shot at a city-run site would receive a $100 payment.
The federal government is the largest employer in the United States and Biden’s move could serve as an example for private businesses and other institutions to follow as they assess getting workers back into offices and work places.
“As a large employer, the largest in this country, who cares about individuals who keep the government running, we have an obligation to be good stewards of the work force and ensure their health and their safety,” White House spokeswoman Jean-Pierre told reporters.
Without getting into the specifics of the announcement, she said that federal workers would have a “choice” about what to do and she noted the weight of the federal government’s example for other employers.
The United States has about 2.18mn civilian employees and 570,000 others work for the US Postal Service (USPS), according to 2020 data.
It is unclear if Biden plans to apply the requirement to the postal service or to contractors who work for the federal government.
The US government employed 3.7mn contract employees as of 2017, a New York University study found.
Biden’s pandemic strategy is coming under scrutiny as the Delta variant spreads and many Americans resist vaccination.
The National Treasury Employees Union, which has 150,000 federal employees in 34 departments and agencies, said that it has supported coronavirus vaccination efforts, including urging agencies to give workers time off to get the jab and recover from any side effects.
“We await more information on the administration’s potential vaccine policy for the federal workforce.
Among the details we will be looking for are occupations subject to mandatory vaccinations, how a possible testing programme may be rolled out, exemptions for medical or religious reasons, and a timeframe for implementation,” said union president Tony Reardon in a statement.
The International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, which has 90,000 members, including some 30,000 National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) engineers and other skilled federal workers, said in a statement that it supported a Covid-19 vaccine mandate for federal workers.
“We don’t want any more of our members dying,” the union’s president Paul Shearon said in a statement.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on Monday mandated that its doctors and other medical staff get Covid-19 vaccines, becoming the first federal agency to impose such a requirement.
The VA comprises the largest US healthcare system, employing more than 367,200 full-time healthcare professionals and support staff at 1,293 facilities, according to its website.
Meanwhile, just two days before it is set to expire, Biden urged Congress to extend the federal ban on evictions.
The 11-month old moratorium was intended to remain in place through September, but a recent Supreme Court ruling signalled that it cannot continue beyond July 31 without authorisation from Congress, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said.
Ordered by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in September 2020, the measure “prevented hundreds of thousands of Americans from experiencing the heartbreak (and) homelessness” of eviction if they lost their jobs due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Psaki said in a statement. “In light of the Supreme Court’s ruling, the president calls on Congress to extend the eviction moratorium to protect such vulnerable renters and their families without delay.”
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