White House signals flexibility over Dec. 8 vaccine deadline

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President-elect Joe Biden announces members of his health team in Wilmington, Delaware
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By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The Biden administration's COVID-19 vaccination deadline will not require immediate action on the part of employers against unvaccinated employees when it comes into force on Dec. 8, the White House coronavirus response coordinator said on Wednesday.

Some lawyers previously interpreted President Joe Biden's Sept. 9 executive order and subsequent White House guidance requiring all covered federal contractor employees to be vaccinated by Dec. 8 unless they got a religious or medical exemption.

The White House comments suggest federal contractors employing millions of U.S. workers have significant flexibility in enforcing COVID-19 rules and will not be required to immediate lay-off workers, but will have time for education, counseling and other measures before potentially ending employment.

Jeff Zients said he expects 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 he does not expect any disruptions to the U.S. economy as a result of the mandate.

"We’re creating flexibility within the system … There is not a cliff here," Zients said, emphasizing the goal is to get people vaccinated "not to punish them so we do not expect any disruptions."

He added: "These processes play out across weeks not days."

His comments were more explicit than those https://www.reuters.com/business/aerospace-defense/us-airlines-white-house-say-vaccine-mandate-will-not-impact-holiday-travel-2021-10-21 last week.

Zients also said a new emergency measure will soon be finalized to ensure private sector workers at companies with 100 or more employees are fully vaccinated or tested for COVID-19 at least weekly.

American Airlines and Southwest Airlines said last Thursday they did not think the Dec. 8 deadline would impact holiday travel or result in employees leaving.

Some airlines and industry-watchers initially feared an exodus of unvaccinated airline or government employees involved in travel just before the Christmas season.

Southwest Airlines Chief Executive Gary Kelly said last week: "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."

American Airlines Chief Executive Doug Parker said last week he did not expect any employees to leave as a result of the vaccine mandate.

A group representing FedEx Corp, United Parcel Service Inc and other cargo carriers told the White House last week it would be virtually impossible to have 100% of their respective work forces vaccinated by Dec. 8.

Many federal contractors have told employees that they risk losing their jobs if they are not vaccinated by Dec. 8. Raytheon Technologies' (RTX.N) Chief Executive Greg Hayes warned in a CNBC interview Tuesday the U.S. aerospace and defense firm will lose 'several thousand' employees who refuse to take COVID-19 vaccines, as it prepares to meet the Dec. 8 deadline.

Republican Senator Roger Wicker on Wednesday urged Biden to abandon the plan, saying "we cannot afford to gut our transportation network of tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of essential, good-paying jobs."

(Reporting by David Shepardson; additional reporting by Tom Hals and Nandita BoseEditing by Alistair Bell and Diane Craft)