Contractor Employees Who Object to Vaccines May Not Get Much Backup

As the military’s COVID-19 vaccination deadlines close in, federal contractors are also demanding employees get vaccinated, driven by President Biden’s Sept. 9 executive order.  

Boeing confirmed Oct. 14 that its U.S. employees must be vaccinated by Dec. 8. “To ensure compliance with President Biden’s executive order for federal contractors, Boeing is requiring its U.S-based employees to either show proof of vaccination or have an approved reasonable accommodation (based on a disability or sincerely held religious belief) by Dec. 8,” the company said in a statement. “Boeing will continue to carefully monitor guidance from public health agencies, and requirements from federal, state and local governments to inform our COVID-19 policies. We continue to prioritize the health and safety of all our employees.”

L3Harris and Honeywell reportedly have announced Dec. 8 deadlines as well, and Lockheed Martin says on its website that it is “following a U.S. federal government requirement for all federal contractors and subcontractors with a covered contract to observe COVID-19 safety practices … and become fully vaccinated.” 

The orders are setting up potential challenges and conflicts as unions, individuals, state governors, and the courts take up challenges. The Biden administration maintains that the order is within the president’s powers and that federal authority supersedes state regulators with regard to federal contractors.

In defiance of local and state measures prohibiting vaccine mandates, such as in Texas, the Pentagon argued in a statement Thursday that federal law supersedes those rules, according to Defense One.

About 63 percent of working-age Americans were vaccinated as of Oct. 7, according to the White House. Assuming those working for federal contractors are roughly consistent with that trend, that suggests thousands if not tens of thousands of unvaccinated employees stand to lose their jobs if they choose to remain unvaccinated or they fail to get a waiver. Yet what it will take to get a waiver is also unclear, as is who gets to determine what constitutes a “sincerely held religious belief” or who gets to decide which appeals have merit.

Based on “a rapid rise in cases and hospitalizations,” Biden issued executive orders Sept. 9 mandating that federal employees get vaccinated by Dec. 8 and requiring contractors and subcontractors to comply with the same guidance issued by the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force. 

Some employees have already begun to object. Protesters rallied against the federal mandates in Florida on Oct. 11, including a Northrop Grumman structural aircraft mechanic who told Florida Today she and coworkers were “backed into a corner.”

The Archbishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of the Military said in a statement that a broad definition of conscientious objection should apply, but others have been less supportive. The American Civil Liberties Union, which often sides with individuals against institutions, supports the government mandate, as does the libertarian CATO Institute, which cautiously acknowledges “a health emergency, which means that suitably modified, narrowly-tailored, time-limited rules may be justified.”