US government workers can return to office without COVID jab

United States government employees should not be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 before returning to their workplaces or made to disclose their vaccination status, according to guidance set to be released by the administration of US President Joe Biden on Thursday.

Workers may voluntarily disclose this information and federal agencies can base their safety protocols, in part, on whether employees are vaccinated, the guidance said.

In a 20-page memo seen by Reuters news agency, the acting heads of three agencies that oversee the federal workforce also urged agencies to consider more flexible arrangements for some employees, including permanent part-time remote work and working outside of normal business hours.

The guidance comes as many US government employees who have been working remotely during the coronavirus pandemic prepare to return to their offices. It comes on the same day the US Department of Labor issued an emergency rule for protecting workers in healthcare settings.

The federal government employs more than four million people, making it the largest employer in the US. Nearly 60 percent of federal employees worked remotely during the pandemic, up from about 3 percent previously, according to Thursday’s memo.

The guidance requires agencies to submit draft proposals by next week and more detailed final plans, including reopening schedules, by July 19.

The memo is signed by the acting heads of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration.

Jason Miller, deputy director for management at OMB, said in a statement that the guidance underscores that worker safety is a top priority as agencies plan to reopen offices.

“This moment in time provides a unique opportunity to look at the federal government’s role as a model employer, as we strive to implement consistent yet flexible government-wide practices that will foster effective, equitable, and inclusive work environments,” Miller said.

The officials also said that agencies’ “eventual post-pandemic operating state may differ in significant ways from [their] pre-pandemic operating state”.

That could mean untethering some workers from physical offices, which would enable agencies to recruit nationwide and share office space while decreasing the amount of time employees spend commuting, they said.

The officials cautioned that agencies may have to bargain with unions before implementing certain policies, such as changes to work schedules and safety protocols. About 30 percent of federal workers are represented by unions.

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