A new federal law designed to curb the spread of diseases such as measles and whooping cough also takes effect today. The legislation, known as the Omnibus Federal Vaccine Accountability and Safety Act, has more than 50 different provisions designed to keep the public safe.
But, one thing in particular could cause strains on the federal workforce. That’s the new law that creates an exemption for people not up to date on their vaccines to be put on unpaid leave from the government. The agency in charge of making those decisions is the Office of Personnel Management, which held its first vaccination management meeting on Wednesday, according to the AP.
During that meeting, lawmakers criticized OPM’s decision to allow workers not to be exempt from mandatory vaccination from getting pulled from their offices, during the government shutdown. In Congress, Republicans have repeatedly characterized the move as an anti-government attempt at intimidation.
A House subcommittee investigating the decision said the determination to exclude workers from their jobs was made without proper input from the director of OPM. The group also disputed OPM’s statement that it consulted the National Academy of Sciences on its decision. Instead, the researchers at the NAS — which included several vaccines experts — told members of Congress the government should continue with the previous vaccine policy, according to a subcommittee report.
Unvaccinated federal employees will have to remain unpaid through the shutdown and will continue to work in their offices. On Wednesday afternoon, a spokesman for OPM sent BuzzFeed News a statement that read, in part:
Given the constraints of the appropriations process, it is not possible to decide individually which individual will receive exemptions based on the proposed concerns stated. It is entirely up to the officer that made the determination and her or his supervisor to determine who is or is not eligible for an exemption. … It is difficult for us to predict what the turnover of measles and pertussis will be, and to assess which employees may need leave per that standard.
Last week, during a hearing on Wednesday, Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, said forcing on-the-job vaccine exemptions was “akin to house arrest.”
Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a California Democrat, addressed OPM’s staff directly in her questioning. She said, “It seems to me that you have no real mandate to make this decision,” according to the Washington Post.
This week’s law, which is part of the government’s biennial Consolidated Appropriations Act for fiscal year 2019, requires all federal agencies to notify employees about the vaccination law. And, while the dates have passed for employees to call in sick from work, the anti-vaccination policy will not affect employees who qualify for an exemption.
The law also mandates that federal employers provide vaccine-related information to their employees.