White House works behind the scenes to prepare labor leaders for federal employee vaccine requirement
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

White House works behind the scenes to prepare labor leaders for federal employee vaccine requirement

White House officials have reached out to key union representatives over the last two days to lay the groundwork for President Joe Biden’s decision to require federal employees to get vaccinated, according to two people familiar with the discussions.

It’s a move that represents both the speed with which the White House is moving on the issue and also the recognition that there are an array of key stakeholders that will play prominent roles in the days and weeks ahead as the policy is implemented.

Despite Biden’s close ties to labor — and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka’s public comments supporting vaccine mandates for workers on Tuesday — the conversations with both public- and private- sector union officials haven’t been seamless, the people said. Some representatives raised concerns about the speed with which the White House was moving toward a position the Biden administration previously hadn’t endorsed, as well as potential pushback from union members.

Still, to this point there hasn’t been significant public grumblings from any national labor groups in a signal that the efforts had an effect, as administration officials have sought to make clear that the requirement operates through attestation of vaccine status — and that those who chose not to get vaccinated wouldn’t face any repercussions related to employment.

The effort tracks with an urgency inside the administration that has grown tangible in recent days as the Delta variant has rolled back gains that appeared all but locked in just weeks ago. Biden and his top advisers have repeatedly made clear the solution is both effective and readily available — vaccinations. Yet tens of millions of Americans remain unvaccinated.

“We still have a lot of people not vaccinated,” Biden said at the top of prepared economic remarks on Wednesday in Pennsylvania. “The pandemic we have now is a pandemic of the unvaccinated. So, please. Please, please, please, if you’re not vaccinated, protect yourself and the children out there.”

But as industries and groups have started to grapple with a clear shift in White House posture in the effort to ramp up vaccinations, one source attributed the lack of public pushback least in part to the recognition through the conversations that the White House had already decided to move forward.

“It was less of a ‘What do you think about this?’ conversation and more of a ‘Here’s what we’re doing’ conversation,” one of the people said.

Biden, in remarks on Thursday, plans to lay out a requirement that all federal employees attest to being vaccinated or face strict Covid protocols including regular testing, masking and other mitigation measures, a source with direct knowledge of the matter told CNN on Tuesday. The directive, which has been under review by the administration for several days, would mark a sharp strategic shift for the White House as it urgently moves to address the spread of the Delta variant.

Biden alluded to the looming announcement on Tuesday.

“That’s under consideration right now,” he said when asked if he would impose a vaccination mandate on federal workers.

While the specifics are still being finalized, the source said the proposal will be roughly similar to what is being implemented in New York City for public workers. Additional requirements for the unvaccinated could be added as agencies push to vaccinate their employees.

Biden will not impose the requirement on the US military, despite his authority to do so, for the time being. He is, however, likely to outline how the Department of Defense may seek to approach the issue going forward, the source said.

Asked if he thinks the new revised guidance on masks from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will lead to confusion for Americans, Biden on Tuesday cast blame on unvaccinated Americans, saying that if they had been vaccinated “we’d be in a very different world.”

“We have a pandemic because the unvaccinated and they’re sowing enormous confusion. And the more we learn about this virus and the Delta variation, the more we have to be worried and concerned. And there’s only one thing we know for sure: if those other hundred million people got vaccinated, we’d be in a very different world,” he said.

The administration’s decision on Monday to require vaccines for Department of Veterans Affairs health workers provided a powerful signal that vaccine requirements could be necessary to convince the still-hesitant to get their shots.

Furthering the case for vaccine mandates, the administration is taking steps to spell out the legal grounds upon which American entities can require employees to get shots.

Justice Department lawyers have determined that federal law doesn’t prohibit public agencies and private businesses from requiring Covid-19 vaccines, even if the vaccines have only been authorized for emergency use, according to an opinion posted online Monday.

The opinion from the department’s Office of Legal Counsel — dated July 6, but released publicly Monday — paves the way for more federal agencies and businesses to require vaccinations following the VA announcement about front-line health workers.

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