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October 7, 2021 | Covid-19 | Posted by Bob Greene, Senior HR Industry Analyst at Ascentis

COVID Vaccine Mandate Regulations for Federal Contractors and Subcontractors

Pursuant to President Biden’s September 9th “Path Out of the Pandemic” announcement, a series of notices of new regulations were expected for various types of employers in the US. There were four general “groups” of employers which were expected to be impacted by the President’s announcement, and as a reminder, they were:

  1. Healthcare employees: rules around heightened COVID safety standards were published in the Federal Register on June 21, 2021 and became effective that day. They are contained in an OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard (“ETS”) that delineated which healthcare employer types were included and which were not, even providing a handy little flow chart for the purpose.
  2. Federal government employees: covered by a separate Executive Order (14043) issued that same day, September 9. It should be noted that due to enforcement limitations of executive orders in general, this E.O. applied to executive branch employees only (e.g., not to employees of the Congress, Senate or Supreme Court.) However, this means that E.O.14043 reaches over 4 million employees (including the entire US military.)
  3. Federal (prime) contractors and subcontractors: covered by a separate Executive Order (14042), also issued on September 9. This is the segment of employers and employees that has had new proposed regulations and a Q&A issued on September 24, and that will be the subject of the remainder of this blog.
  4. Private sector employers of 100 employees or more: perhaps the most controversial of the populations covered by the President’s September 9 announcement, we await an ETS or similar guidance from OSHA. The extent of the intended new regulations is clear from the President’s announcement, however: for employers of 100 employees or more, a mandate is expected to be put in place for employees to complete a full course of vaccinations, or test negative for COVID on a minimum of a weekly basis.

New Federal Contractor/Subcontractor Regulations Announced September 24

On September 24, the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force issued formal guidance pursuant to E.O.14042, and spelling out regulations that federal contractors (both prime and sub-) must follow to prevent COVID transmission in the workplace. They include the following three major categories:

  1. Mandatory COVID vaccination: All employees must be fully vaccinated, unless they qualify under an EEOC-recognized exception (generally, disability or sincerely-held religious belief). An employee is not considered fully vaccinated until 2 weeks after the last dose of vaccine has been received (one or two injections, depending on manufacturer). There are very few exceptions to this requirement – see the Q&A below.
  2. Masks and physical distancing required while in covered contractor workplaces: Individuals who are not fully vaccinated must wear a mask indoors and in certain outdoor settings, regardless of the level of community transmission in the area. To the extent practicable, individuals who are not fully vaccinated should maintain a distance of at least six feet from others at all times, including in offices, conference rooms, and all other communal and work spaces. This rule applies both to employees and visitors to contractor workplaces. Fully vaccinated individuals must wear a mask in indoor settings only if they are working in a communal workspace in geographic areas assessed as experiencing high or substantial community transmission. In areas of low or moderate community transmission, fully vaccinated individuals need not wear a mask. Fully vaccinated individuals do not need to physically distance regardless of the level of transmission in the area. In specific settings where the CDC has issued stricter guidance than that stated above, the stricter regulations will apply. This includes certain: healthcare institutions, schools, detention facilities, correctional institutions, and federally regulated transportation settings (airplanes, airports, trains, inter-city busses, etc.)
  3. Designation of one or more persons to coordinate COVID-19 workplace safety efforts in covered workplaces: Such designated coordinators are responsible for collection and dissemination to contractor employees of current safety protocol information, as well as collection and recordkeeping relating to all vaccination documentation, among other duties.

Effective Date of New Contractor Regulations

The new regulations have a “nested” series of effective dates that could cause confusion. These include:

  • October 8: The expected date by which the new contractual clauses related to this COVID guidance will be available for review. It is being developed by the FAR (Federal Acquisition Regulation) rules council.
  • October 15: Overall effective date of the new regulations, terms must be incorporated in new federal contract solicitations on or after this date, as well as current contract extensions or renewals effective on or after this date
  • November 14: Terms must be incorporation in new federal contracts awarded on or after this date
  • December 8: Covered contractor employees must be fully vaccinated by this date, meaning second injections for those requiring two shots, by November 24
  • Undetermined: The point (if any) at which “in-flight” federal contracts will have the new regulations applied to them automatically (i.e., prior to such contract’s next renewal). This issue is expected to be resolved by later announcement(s).

“What Are You Going to Do If We Don’t?” Possible Consequences of Non-Compliance

While the recently announced COVID contractor workplace regulations do not explicitly mention any new penalties or consequences for noncompliance, they also do not suggest that there will be any exceptions to existing federal contract noncompliance remedies administered by the General Services Administration (“GSA”). GSA administers a series of escalating contract noncompliance remedies known as “Suspension and Debarment.” As most experienced federal contractors know, suspension occurs while the agency investigates allegations of certain types of wrongdoing or rules infractions, and can last up to 12 months. Debarment occurs when the agency determines, by a preponderance of the evidence (civil standard) that the rules have been broken. Debarment can last up to three years and effectively “blacklists” the aspiring contractor from doing any further federal contract work. Subcontracting during debarment is limited to contract values less than $30,000.

The Devil Is in the Details: Some Useful Q&As

  • Q: Does the new guidance apply to every federal contractor/subcontractor?
  • A: NO, the guidance specifically exempts prime and subcontracts “for the manufacturing of products.”

 

  • Q: Does the new guidance apply to small employers (less than 100 employees) who are federal contractors or subcontractors?
  • A: YES, however the size of the contract may provide an exemption. Previously established US regulations designated $250,000 as a contract limit known as the “simplified acquisition threshold.” While contractors operating under the simplified acquisition threshold are not required to abide by the new guidance, they are heavily encouraged to do so.

 

  • Q: Does the new vaccination mandate include exemptions for individuals who require accommodations on previously recognized grounds?
  • A: YES, but those are limited to medical/disability, and sincerely-held religious belief. Employers should use traditional evaluation methods (as promulgated by the EEOC) to verify these accommodation requests. Notably, an employee’s request for exemption solely on the basis that the vaccines are “experimental,” not yet FDA-approved, and/or released under Emergency Use Authorization, is no longer valid, since the point in late August when the FDA gave full approval to the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

 

  • Q: Does the new vaccination mandate apply to individuals who have had an active COVID-19 infection in the past and therefore believe they have developed antibodies to the disease?
  • A: YES.

 

  • Q: Does the new vaccination mandate apply to employees who work solely out of doors throughout the performance of the contract?
  • A: YES.

 

  • Q: Does the new vaccination mandate apply to employees who work solely from a home office and never visit a contractor work place throughout the performance of the contract?
  • A: YES, however the masking and physical distancing requirements may not apply to such an employee.

 

  • Q: Can a covered contractor accept a recent negative COVID antibody test in lieu of proof of vaccination, as has been announced for private sector employers?
  • A: NO.

 

  • Q: Does the new vaccination mandate extend to employees who do not work directly on federal contracts, but rather “in connection with” contracts, such as (for example) those in Human Resources, Accounting, Billing, and Legal Review?
  • A: YES.

 

  • Q: Does the new vaccination mandate apply to workers in states that have expressly prohibited vaccine mandates and/or prohibited inquiries into an individual’s vaccine status?
  • A: YES.

 

  • Q: Does the new vaccination mandate apply to workers who work entirely outside the USA?
  • A: NO.

 

  • Q: Do the new regulations require that federal contractors make vaccines available to their employees at the worksite?
  • A: NO, however employers should take steps to ensure that employees are informed of convenient vaccination opportunities. Employee self-service home pages and/or HR system mobile app “push” notifications offer an excellent opportunity to comply with this requirement.

 

  • Q: Who is responsible for ensuring that subcontractors comply with the new guidance?
  • A: The prime contractor is responsible for verifying the subcontractors’ compliance.

Want to keep up with the latest general COVID compliance and specific vaccination mandate information for all segments of the employer population? Then register for our webinar, “COVID Legislative Update: How to Handle End of Year Compliance Challenges”.

Bob Greene currently serves as Senior HR Industry Analyst at Ascentis. Bob’s 40 years in the human capital management industry have been spent in practitioner, consultant and vendor/partner roles. As practitioner, he managed payroll for a 5,000-person bank in New Jersey. As consultant, he spent 8 years advising customers in HRMS, and payroll and benefits system design as well as acquisition strategies. Bob also built a strategic HCM advisory practice for Xcelicor (later acquired by Deloitte Consulting.)