Federal agencies must start testing unvaccinated employees at least weekly for the coronavirus by Feb. 15, the Biden administration said in new guidance issued Tuesday.
Agencies are also free to require more frequent testing for certain occupations or work settings, the administration says.
More than 90 percent of 3.5 million federal employees and uniformed armed forces personnel have complied with Biden’s executive order issued in September requiring coronavirus vaccines, but Tuesday’s guidance offers more clear rules for those who have applied for or received exemptions.
Employees who do not comply with the mandate generally are first to be counseled, then suspended without pay and then, potentially, fired unless they get the vaccines. Those who have been granted an exemption on medical or religious grounds, or whose application for an exemption is still under consideration, will be subject to regular testing and other restrictions when working in person.
After initially setting a vaccination deadline of Nov. 22 and telling agencies they could start the disciplinary process even earlier, the administration later instructed agencies to wait until this month to start taking any action more serious than counseling for holdouts.
The most recent data on vaccination rates show that as of early December, 92 percent of federal employees and military personnel had received at least one dose and another 4.7 percent had asked for an exemption on religious or medical grounds.
There has been no accounting yet of how many exemption requests have been granted.
Tuesday’s guidance fleshes out previously announced requirements that unvaccinated employees be tested at least weekly when working on-site, adding that agencies may require testing more often “for certain roles, functions, or work environments.” Agencies further may require testing of employees “regardless of their vaccination status” for those reasons.
The guidance also says that agencies may use any of the tests approved by the Food and Drug Administration and that testing can be done on-site, at locations such as pharmacies, or can be self-administered — in each case, at the agency’s cost. However, agencies would have to verify a self-reported negative result, and tests “should not be both self-administered and self-read by the employee unless observed by the agency or an authorized telehealth provider,” the guidance says.
Employees subject to regular testing who refuse to take a required test can be barred from the workplace and put on temporary paid leave, and the agency “may pursue disciplinary action up to and including removal,” the guidance adds.