John M. Donnelly
WASHINGTON — Facing criticism that mandates for coronavirus vaccinations could force the Defense Department to fire thousands of civilians, contractors and troops, the Biden administration is signaling that vaccine resisters may get more time to comply.
President Joe Biden and administration officials have previously said Pentagon employees and contractors have to be vaccinated or face termination on a series of upcoming deadlines. This has led to fears that thousands of people responsible for national defense may soon be forced out of their jobs. Virtually every day, Republican lawmakers decry what they describe as a national security crisis in the offing.
The deadlines for vaccination vary, depending on the type of employee. And they have not changed. The first of them arrives next week, on Nov. 2, for active-duty Air Force personnel, and official service figures show that some 4 percent of the active-duty Air Force is still not fully vaccinated.
Three administration officials in the last couple of days have described the deadlines not as the dates when an ax will fall but rather as the start of an education process designed to convince those who are resisting vaccination to reverse course.
Administration officials seem to be straddling a line — sending a strict signal that the U.S. government will vaccinate its people on the one hand, while reassuring Americans that enforcement will not come so hard and fast as to harm U.S. military readiness or the broader economy.
“U.S. military leaders are sending a tough message to the troops to get it done,” said Mike Hanzel, a civilian attorney who specializes in military law. “However, my sense is that their goal here is not to punish or separate large numbers of servicemembers, which could be counterproductive to overall readiness, but rather to encourage compliance. In practice, while anyone who failed to get their vaccine is at risk once the deadline passes, I believe most will still have an opportunity to get the vaccine and avoid involuntary separation.”
Under a variety of directives, federal government civilians, contractors and U.S. military personnel must all be vaccinated as a condition of employment or of receiving contracts, except for those exempted for religious or medical reasons.
The deadlines for people whose work connects them to the Pentagon to get fully vaccinated generally fall in November and December, though Army reservists have until June of next year to get their shots.
While it is clear that termination of employment is a possible consequence for those who do not comply on schedule, how and when the policy would be enforced is not yet clear.
On Thursday, Stephen Morani, the Pentagon’s acting assistant secretary for sustainment, addressing the Nov. 22 deadline for Defense Department civilians to be fully vaccinated, described the enforcement process as more pedagogical than punitive.
“There will be escalation in disciplinary actions that will go through a process,” Morani said at a House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee hearing. “Nobody is going to be fired on the 22nd. Education is critical in this space — to educate people about the safety of it and the risk of not having it.”
Likewise, Ashish Vazirani, the president’s nominee to be the Pentagon’s deputy under secretary for personnel and readiness, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday he supports the mandate but believes it will be sensitively enforced.
“It’s my understanding that there is an administrative process that allows for exemptions, whether they’re medically necessary or due to religious belief, and then progressing administrative actions to address a servicemember who may decline a vaccine,” Vazirani said, addressing the committee’s top Republican, James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma. “So, senator, if I’m confirmed, I would certainly look towards making sure that those processes are administered with care and compassion, so that we understand the specific needs of each servicemember.”
Inhofe, for his part, said: “I can’t think of anything that would be worse than if we were to find ourselves in a situation where we’re letting people go, we’re firing people.”
The administration’s soft sell of the mandate was also in evidence the day before when Jeff Zients, Biden’s coronavirus response coordinator, told reporters that most of the deadlines are still a few weeks off and, even then, a process will only have begun.
“But even once we hit those deadlines, we expect federal agencies and contractors will follow their standard HR processes and that, for any of the probably relatively small percent of employees that are not in compliance, they’ll go through education, counseling, accommodations, and then enforcement,” Zients said. “So, these processes play out across weeks, not days. And so, to be clear, we’re creating flexibility within the system. We’re offering people multiple opportunities to get vaccinated. There is not a cliff here.”
A Senate GOP aide said Zients’s comments “increase confusion for business owners who will ultimately bear the ramifications of accidental noncompliance. Doublespeak isn’t good enough: The White House needs to be clear if they’re moving the deadline or not.”
A White House official declined to clarify or elaborate on Zients’s remarks.
‘Phased approach’ to enforcement?
The military services have all said that uniformed personnel who are documented as having refused to be vaccinated by the deadline may face what is known as separation — or what civilians call firing.
But the services have sent different and sometimes unclear signals on whether less strict punishments might be tried before separation and whether those who miss the deadline but comply later will still be punished.
The Navy and Marine Corps stand out as being clear that processing for separation will occur whenever a sailor refuses to be vaccinated on schedule without an allowable exemption. Other punishments may occur, officers say, but not in lieu of separation, which servicemembers can appeal.
The Army, Air Force and Space Force meanwhile, have been less precise on how enforcement will play out.
Those services “direct the use of a phased approach to enforcing the vaccination mandate with education and counseling of noncompliant servicemembers prior to initiating actions to separate an individual from military service,” said Bryce Mendez, a defense health care policy analyst with the Congressional Research Service. “Other services take a more direct approach by initiating separation actions immediately.”
To be sure, even after all the educating, counseling and cajoling, some troops and Defense Department employees and contractors — perhaps thousands — may decide not to be vaccinated and accept the consequences.
The National Defense Industrial Association, representing some 70,000 contract workers, takes no position on the vaccine mandate, but its executives say they are gravely concerned about the potential loss of skilled workers as a result.
Greg Hayes, Raytheon Technologies chief executive, said this week he expects his company alone to have to replace thousands of workers.
Protests against the vaccine mandate for federal contractors, with its Dec. 8 deadline, occurred in recent weeks at major Navy shipyards in Virginia, Maine and Mississippi.
Still, it is likely that some troops, contractors and civilians who are reluctant to get vaccinated may change their minds, once the consequences of not getting jabbed become apparent. Then, the administration hopes, only a small minority would have to be let go.
“Some may find that when it comes to putting their job at risk or taking the vaccine, they’ll take the vaccine,” said the Pentagon’s Morani.
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