Agencies that have received direct allocations of coronavirus vaccines have taken different approaches to vaccinating their contractors, with some treating them the same as civil servants and others leaving them to fend for themselves.
A handful of federal agencies received direct allocations of coronavirus vaccines over the winter, but there was still some confusion about how and when federal employees could get inoculated. Adding to the complexities, there are about 5 million federal contractors, according to a Brookings Institution analysis published in October 2020, who are critical to helping the government carry out its mission, and there is no uniform policy on whether these contractors are eligible for agency-provided vaccines.
The Office of Management and Budget, which has issued various iterations of guidance regarding contractors since the pandemic started, did not respond for comment.
The Homeland Security Department––which began vaccinating its employees in January in partnership with the Veterans Affairs Department–– said in a letter to the contracting community last week that its current vaccine plans do not include contractors. However, “DHS supports employer efforts to obtain vaccinations for contractor employees as quickly as possible,” DHS Chief Procurement Officer Soraya Correa wrote. “Many states and localities offer vaccination prioritization for frontline essential workers. In these instances, an employer letter identifying the employee as both a DHS contractor employee and frontline essential worker may be sufficient in order for them to receive the vaccine sooner.”
Government Executive reached out to the other Cabinet and major agencies to ask if they were offering vaccines to their contractors and received the following answers:
- State Department: “The department’s goal is to offer vaccines to 100% of its eligible workforce, both domestically and overseas,” said a department spokesperson. “Prioritization of our doses was based [on] which personnel were deemed essential to mission operations who also had to enter department facilities to work, not on employment status.”
- Veterans Affairs Department: “Given the benefits to our staff and veterans, VA policy provides that [the Veterans Health Administration] may choose to include certain VA contractors, students, trainees and volunteers. For trainees and residents, close coordination with academic affiliates is necessary as these affiliates may already be supplying vaccines to these staff,” said a VA spokesperson. “Risk-based prioritization of these individuals will proceed according to VHA’s COVID-19 vaccine risk stratification framework with the expectation that they may be offered the vaccine along with the units and personnel they serve alongside in VA. Depending on vaccine availability and prioritization processes, these individuals might not receive the vaccine at the same time as those individuals in the same unit or work group.”
- Defense Department: “The department’s COVID-19 vaccine program is making vaccinations available to all eligible service members, DoD civilians and other beneficiaries, including families, veterans and retirees,” said Maj. César Santiago, Defense spokesperson. “Under this program a small number of DoD-affiliated contract employees directly supporting the DoD on DoD installations or in an operational environment will also be offered vaccines in accordance with the terms of applicable contracts.” The department published its vaccine guidance in December, which includes contractors.
- Justice Department: “Justice has only recently been able to request a direct supply of vaccines for a portion of the department’s critical infrastructure, on-site federal positions in law enforcement, national security and court-related operations,” said a department spokesperson. “However, the department is also considering direct vaccination of contractor staff in eligible priority categories, based on vaccine availability and if associated contractual and financial issues can be addressed. Meanwhile, contractors have been encouraged to work with state and local health systems for contractor employee vaccinations, and the Department of Justice is prepared to assist contractor employees by providing a letter documenting their priority status that can be presented to state and local health officials.”
- The Federal Bureau of Prisons, a division of the Justice Department, referred to OMB for comment.
- The Office of the Director National Intelligence: “ODNI has offered COVID-19 vaccinations to all personnel working in our facilities,” said an ODNI spokesperson. “The health of our officers is our highest priority.”
The Commerce Department has yet to receive a direct allocation of vaccines, but “we expect to receive an allocation and begin vaccinating our critical workers/contractors (and possibly some from other federal agencies) in the coming weeks,” said a department spokesperson.
The Agriculture Department also hasn’t received a direct vaccine allocation for either staff or contractors, but “we are providing administrative leave to any employee to get the vaccine,” said a department spokesperson. Additionally, “more than 500 USDA employees have deployed alongside their federal partners to provide vaccines at sites across the country” and “we also offer our facilities, such as refrigeration, to [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] and to states.”
The U.S. Agency for International Development said that “for the domestic workforce, possible sources of the vaccine are state and local allocations, and potential direct allocation to the agency, for which USAID is actively advocating. For the overseas workforce, vaccination efforts are covered under the Department of State plan, with overseas personnel falling under the chief of mission’s purview.”
If USAID does receive an allocation of vaccines, the agency has a plan ready for the domestic workforce and “there will be no distinction in eligibility between direct hire and contractor staff, as function will be determinative,” the spokesperson said.
The Indian Health Service, trial and urban Indian organization facilities started distributing and administering vaccinations in December. This was following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, “which first focused on health care workers, front line essential workers, elders, and those with high risk medical conditions,” said IHS Spokesperson Jennifer Buschick. “Many IHS contractors who work in IHS facilities and serve as health care or essential workers would fall into that category.”
Since then many IHS, tribal and urban Indian health programs have expanded their vaccine distributions to members of the local communities.
The Education Department said it isn’t administering vaccines. The Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department referred to OMB for comment.
Larry Hanauer, vice president of policy for the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, an association that promotes public-private collaborations on intelligence matters, spoke about the importance for vaccinating all contractors in the intelligence community, which was “particularly vulnerable to a large-scale disruption” during the pandemic. This was due to the need to reduce or stagger staffing in sensitive compartmented information facilities, which “made it harder to execute missions.” He called on the ODNI to issue uniform, IC-wide guidance–– similar to the Defense Department’s––that “provides equitable access” to vaccines.
“Because contractors play so many critical roles in the Defense Department and the intelligence community, agencies can’t fully function until everyone who’s working in a [sensitive compartmented information facility] is vaccinated,” said Hanauer. “The virus doesn’t care whether someone is wearing a blue government badge or green contractor badge.”
David Berteau, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council, a trade association that represents over 400 companies that contract with the federal government, said during a press briefing on Wednesday they’ve been told that contracting officers can’t require contractors to get vaccines while they just have emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, which is “consistent with past practice and my understanding of the regulations.”
Separately, PSC is “continuing to encourage the administration” to issue guidance for federal contractors (such as for the return to workplaces) “in the same, uniform, consistent way that federal civilian employees are being addressed.”
When asked during a briefing on Wednesday if the White House is considering expanding access to vaccines for federal employees, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said she’d have to check with the COVID response team. “Obviously, everyone will be eligible in just over a month, including our government employees,” she added. “So that is good news.”