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By David Shepardson
(Reuters) - The White House told federal agencies on Monday they can delay punishing thousands of federal workers who failed to comply with a Nov. 22 COVID-19 vaccination deadline.
On Wednesday, the Biden administration said a total of 92% of U.S. federal workers have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Overall, 96.5% of the 3.5 million federal workers were considered to be in compliance with the administration's mandate announced in September because they either were vaccinated or had an exemption request granted or under consideration.
The White House said it was not delaying the vaccination deadline.
"We encourage your agencies to continue with robust education and counseling efforts through this holiday season as the first step in an enforcement process," said an email from the Office of Management and Budget and Office of Personnel Management.
It said no further action was needed, aside from potentially a letter of reprimand, for nearly all employees who have not yet complied with the vaccination requirement until January.
"We believe this approach is the best one to achieving our goal of getting the federal workforce vaccinated," the email said, added that "agencies may need to act on enforcement sooner for a limited number of employees, such as where there are additional or compounding performance or workplace safety issues under consideration."
The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the largest federal employee union representing 700,000 government workers, praised the Biden Administration "for delaying vaccine mandate discipline."
The Biden "administration has done the right thing by listening to federal workers, taking their concerns seriously, and giving those who haven't yet gotten vaccinated some peace of mind this holiday season," AFGE National President Everett Kelley said in a statement.
The administration repeatedly had said it would not immediately seek to suspend or fire unvaccinated employees.
The White House previously said for federal employees not in compliance, agencies should begin "a brief period of education and counseling" to last five days. If employees do not "demonstrate progress toward becoming fully vaccinated," that "should be followed by a short suspension" of no more than 14 days.
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Bill Berkrot)