Can colleges extend deadlines to get contract employees COVID-19 vaccines?

One Southern university already has granted leeway to some workers until early next year.
By: | November 4, 2021
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS/FRED ZWICKY

New updates to the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force guidelines on federally contracted employees may allow colleges and universities an additional window for meeting a fast-approaching deadline for their vaccine compliance.

In its initial guidance—and in order to get more of the United States population vaccinated against COVID-19—the Biden Administration mandated that institutions and businesses with government contracts ensure that those employees complete doses by Dec. 8. But the new guidelines hint at leeway for employers, who can use their discretion in handling unvaccinated employees.

Institutions can still terminate them or put them on leave if they don’t meet the deadline. But they also can give them “a limited period of counseling and education” as they work toward compliance. Employees given that added time still would need to comply with safety protocols such as testing, masking and social distancing.

Colleges and universities should clarify any changes to policy with legal teams since the Task Force notes that noncompliance also could result in “significant actions, such as termination of the contract.” Some legal experts are advising that institutions still try to meet that 100% threshold if they can.

University of Mississippi Chancellor Glenn Boyce, in a letter sent to staff, students and faculty, said the new guidance means his institution’s contracted workers will not have to go on unpaid leave and can remain on until Jan. 3, 2022, as long as they continue to comply (he did indicate that there is a small group of employees who may need to hit the original deadline). Regardless, once that date next year arrives, they could be terminated.

“Employees who are not fully vaccinated by Jan. 3 (and who have not demonstrated a good faith effort to become fully vaccinated by having received at least one dose of the vaccine of their choice) or who have not received an accommodation may be separated from employment,” he wrote.

Those who have requested exemptions pending at Ole Miss at the Jan. 3 deadline will be given added time to have them reviewed. And “if an accommodation request is denied, the employee will be given a reasonable period of time to act promptly and become fully vaccinated,” he wrote. Institutions and employees nationwide who have exempted employees must meet all federal guidelines, including reporting and ensuring mitigation protocols determined by the Task Force.

Boyce wrote that terminated employees could wind up back in the workplace if and when the vaccine requirement is lifted. But that might be a longshot in the short term given the continuous spinoffs of coronavirus variants and the lack of dosing occurring nationwide, including Mississippi, where only 46% of citizens are fully vaccinated.

How other institutions are responding

There are two areas of concern that legal experts say prompted the added “limited period of counseling.” One is that 18 states have filed lawsuits to challenge Biden’s Executive Order 14042 on employee vaccinations. The second is that the hard-fast deadline of Dec. 8 might lead to both widespread termination of employees or resignations that could lead to huge supply chain disruptions.

Even with litigation pending, a number of public institutions in largely conservative states are following the Biden guidance for now. That includes four-year universities in Idaho and Kansas. There is just too much at stake not to comply, at least initially, and it goes beyond protecting employees. They have millions of dollars in research tied to federal contracts.

One institution that is still on the fence is the University of Missouri. “As decisions are made and plans finalized, we will communicate further about how exactly these new requirements will apply to all four universities and other university facilities,” officials told the community. “In the meantime, we continue to encourage vaccination for those who have not done so already.”