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Biden's COVID-19 Vaccine Policy For Federal Workers Raises Questions

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

As a candidate, President Biden billed himself as a union man. But when his administration released new vaccination guidelines to federal workers, it seems those unions were not initially at the table. Anthony Reardon is the president of the National Treasury Employees Union, or NTEU, and he says that while these guidelines seem fair, it would've been nice to have been looped in on the conversations right at the beginning.

ANTHONY REARDON: Let me just first say it is not a vaccine mandate. If a federal employee wants to attest to being vaccinated, they can. If an employee, however, chooses not to disclose that information or if they are unvaccinated, then the testing policy comes into play.

MARTINEZ: And if it doesn't change, Tony, are you in support of what you just described to me?

REARDON: The current policy as it is, we are in support of it. However, we do have a lot of questions about its implementation. And I think you just can't divorce the policy from, you know, some of the answers to questions that we think, you know, have to be addressed. So we're going to be doing everything that we can to make sure that we're getting those answers and that employees' rights are protected.

MARTINEZ: What answers do you want?

REARDON: Well, I think the kinds of questions that we have is how long will agencies be provided to implement the policy, things like how will the policy be enforced? How much time will employees be given to get vaccinated or face testing? How will employees make their vaccine status known? And, I mean, there are just a myriad of questions that we think need to be answered.

MARTINEZ: OK. When it comes to those questions that you want answers for, how much have you drawn a line in the sand about having some of that negotiated, bargained for as opposed to just being told?

REARDON: Well, the process in the federal sector is that we have the opportunity to bargain, and we are going to make sure that those opportunities are fulfilled. So we are going to and already have begun, frankly, asking these questions. And, you know, to be honest with you, I think that agencies have a lot of the same interests. Everybody, I think, wants to make sure that the workplace and employees are as safe as possible.

MARTINEZ: I ask about bargaining, Tony, only because I know that bargaining, when it comes to a union, takes time. It could take some time. And I know that the Biden administration is very keen on having vaccination rates go up as quickly as possible. So I'm wondering if this could somehow lead to delays that maybe nobody wants.

REARDON: Obviously, I only speak for NTEU, but I think NTEU is certainly ready to sit down now, and we can move through the bargaining process very quickly.

MARTINEZ: What are you hearing from your union members?

REARDON: It is really reflective of the American public. So clearly, there are a wide variety of opinions. We have members who were first in line to get vaccines. I mean, they wanted a vaccine as quickly as humanly possible. Those who have been hesitant and some who simply don't want it are, you know, just like the rest of the American society, right? So this policy, I think, encompasses all of those viewpoints. And I think it was really smart of the president to recognize that a wholesale mandate might not be well received.

MARTINEZ: You know, Tony, I was wondering, with the delta variant doing what it's doing and the Biden administration's push to get more people vaccinated, it feels like, in a way, we've reached a tipping point of some kind. And I'm wondering for you, as the president of the National Treasury Employees Union, do you feel like federal employees have been put in the middle of all this, almost as a test case to see how this goes?

REARDON: We didn't hear about this particular new policy until about 24 hours before it was actually announced by the president. So I can't tell you that I had or that we had a whole lot of discussion with the administration about their thinking behind all of this. But, you know, the reality is that the administration has taken the stance that it has. We're going to continue to negotiate and deal with what is actually in front of us. We're focused on that policy. We're focused on getting the information about it out to our members and sitting down with agencies to figure out how all of this is going to work.

MARTINEZ: Do you wish the Biden administration had involved you more as they were coming up with this policy so that way maybe you wouldn't have as many questions about it now?

REARDON: I always believe that you can't communicate too much. And I will tell you that I shared directly with the administration that I think it would've been helpful for us to be engaged earlier so that we could have talked about these various questions that we have. And I think always, labor is helpful to be at the table in a pre-decisional way because we're going to raise issues that we think are important to be thought through. In the end, we understand, you know, things happen, and the administration and the president have to do what they have to do. But it's important, I think, to get the viewpoints of employees and their representatives so that the very best outcome can be realized.

MARTINEZ: Anthony Reardon is the president of the National Treasury Employees Union. Tony, thanks a lot.

REARDON: Thank you, sir. Appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.