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White House suggests flexibility in enforcing vaccine mandates

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The White House is suggesting there will be some wiggle room in enforcing vaccine mandate deadlines for federal workers — after President Biden announced the far-reaching new rules in a September speech where he lashed out at those who are hesitant.

He also said at the time that the Labor Department will compel businesses with 100 workers or more to require them to get the vaccine or undergo weekly testing. 

Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, told reporters those “deadlines are not cliffs” at a briefing Wednesday. 

“The federal worker deadline is the 22nd of November, and the federal contractor deadline is not until December 8th​,” he said. ​

“​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 continued. 

Jeff Zients
White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients said the vaccine “deadlines are not cliffs” on Oct. 27, 2021.
AFP via Getty Images

​​He said the mandates are not intended to be punitive and predicted that they will not be disruptive, as a worker shortage has exacerbated the global supply chain crisis that is causing prices on a variety of goods to spike. 

“​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​,” he said. ​

“​And the purpose, I think, most importantly, is to get people vaccinated and protected, not to punish them. So, we do not expect any disruptions​,” Zients added. ​

A number of companies have already begun requiring vaccinations — United Airlines said 99.7 percent of its employees got the shot, and Tyson Foods said 97 percent of its workers got it. 

CEO and Chairman for Southwest Airlines Gary Kelly
Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said that “nobody is going to lose their job” if they’re not perfectly in compliance with the vaccine mandate.
Stewart F. House/Getty Images

Execs at American Airlines and Southwest Airlines said they don’t expect the vaccine requirements to affect holiday travel or cause large-scale resignations among employees. 

​”We want our employees to know that nobody is going to lose their job on December 9 if we’re not perfectly in compliance​. ​… We’re not going to fire anybody who doesn’t get vaccinated​,” ​Southwest Airlines ​CEO Gary Kelly said last week​.​

But trade associations representing FedEx and UPS told the White House it will be impossible for them to have all workers at the cargo carriers ​vaccinated by the Dec. 8 deadline and urged pushing it into next year.

​“We have significant concerns with the employer mandates announced on Sept. 9, 2021, and the ability of industry members to implement the required employee vaccinations by Dec. 8, 2021,” Stephen Alterman, president of the Cargo Airline Association, wrote in a letter sent to the Biden administration that was obtained by Politico.​

American Airlines plane
American Airlines executives said they don’t expect the vaccine requirements to affect holiday travel.
NurPhoto via Getty Images

The letter asked that the deadline be extended to the “first half of 2022.”

Alterman also warned the Department of Transportation that the deadline coming weeks before the Christmas holidays “creates a significant supply chain problem.”

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) also urged Biden to back off the deadline.

“We cannot afford to gut our transportation network of tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of essential, good-paying jobs,” he said. 

Senator Roger Wicker
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) urged President Biden to back off the vaccine deadline for federal workers.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 58 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated. 

And with the deadlines for military members to be vaccinated looming, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday that 97 percent of active-duty personnel have gotten one dose of the vaccine but that only 68 percent of the total military force has been fully vaccinated.

He also said the Defense Department will handle the mandates “with compassion and with understanding.”

“People understand that this is an important program, and they’re participating in it. Secondly, with respect to the exemption process, each service handles this differently,” Kirby said.

With Post wires

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