NTEU’s Approach to COVID Testing and Vaccines


The issue of testing and vaccinations for CBP employees has been evolving as the government and public health experts adjust their policies based on the changing nature of the pandemic.


At NTEU, we’ve heard your questions and concerns about the impact on you and your workplace and understand that individuals have a wide range of opinions on the vaccines, testing and the government’s approach to managing the pandemic within our country and the federal workforce.


Our top priority from the very start has been the health and safety of our union members. Every single action NTEU has taken under the current and former administrations has been driven by that principle.


It is proven that while the vaccine does not prevent infection by the delta variant, it greatly reduces the chances of ending up in the ICU or dying. Vaccinated individuals are much less likely to become infected and less likely to transmit the disease. For example, a recent study by your fellow federal employees at the CDC found that even with the delta variant, unvaccinated people are 29 times more likely to be hospitalized than vaccinated individuals and five times more likely to become infected.


Too many of our unvaccinated members and leaders have been hospitalized or died from the virus already. According to a study by the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund, 2020 saw the highest number of line-of-duty law enforcement officer deaths since 1974, with COVID-19 as the number one cause (55 percent) of those deaths.


For those reasons, NTEU will continue to urge our members who are medically able and do not have religious objections to get vaccinated.


Testing


The government, like any employer, has the legal right to ask employees about their vaccine status and to require regular testing for those who refuse the vaccine or decline to disclose their status. We can bargain over the implementation of testing protocols, but we cannot stop it at the bargaining table, nor can we stop it in the courts. Some of the issues we would address in bargaining have already been addressed in our meetings with the administration, including that the testing be conducted on duty time and at the government’s expense, and that includes time to travel to a testing location if it is not done on-site.


In addition, NTEU will bargain to limit the sharing of vaccination status information only to those supervisors who need to know. Although, technically, the DHS vaccination attestation form is voluntary, failing to submit it will be treated as declining to state one’s vaccine status and result in regular COVID testing. We will also propose the use of a saliva-based test instead of a deep nasal swab.


CBP and most other federal agencies are not ready to implement their testing programs because they are still gathering data about vaccination rates among their employees. They need the data from the attestation forms to identify the scope and locations where testing will be needed, which will inform who they contract with or arrange to conduct the testing. Until CBP establishes its testing program, employees do not need to show proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test prior to gaining entry to their worksites.


Once a testing program is implemented, unvaccinated employees or those who decline to disclose their status will be tested once or twice weekly but do not need to wait for test results to access the worksite. This program might entail an agency requiring an employee to be tested offsite on duty time at a location such as a pharmacy and providing proof of that test to their employer. NTEU will be bargaining these details, as well.


Vaccinations


NTEU has heard from members who are angry that the union hasn’t come out against any potential vaccine mandate, and we have heard from others who are equally angry that we haven’t demanded mandates. NTEU has avoided taking a position because it would be beside the point: All employers, including the federal government, have the legal right to require vaccinations unless an employee has medical or religious exceptions. Many private-sector employers have already taken this step. This is settled law, as the courts have already rejected challenges to vaccine requirements in work and school settings well before the COVID pandemic. NTEU will not waste member dues filing a lawsuit that cannot be won.


It is possible that the government will make vaccinations a condition of employment for certain CBP positions. In fact, a vaccine mandate is more likely if large numbers of employees are not vaccinated or decline to disclose their status, or testing turns out to be a huge logistical undertaking. We cannot block a vaccination requirement but, as with testing, we can bargain how it is implemented. At NTEU’s urging, agencies are already required to provide administrative time for getting vaccinated, to get family members vaccinated, and for recovery. If CBP mandates vaccines, we will bargain for adequate time within which to comply, vaccine options if possible, and accommodations for those with medical or religious objections, among other things.


Conclusions


The work of our public facing CBP employees during a pandemic is high risk. That is why last week we presented our case to an arbitrator, arguing that our members who are regularly interacting with the public during the pandemic deserve hazardous duty pay. To insist that COVID safety measures like masks, testing and vaccines be optional suggests the risk is not great, which contradicts our argument for hazardous duty pay.


At NTEU, we celebrate the CBP employees we represent who work every day to meet the federal government’s missions of securing the nation, promoting economic growth, and protecting the public health. Your health and safety are paramount. We do not want to see more of our members hospitalized or die and experience more grief. Vaccines are a proven way to get the job done. Thank you for your membership and support of NTEU.

NTEU’s Mission: To organize federal employees to work together to ensure that every federal employee is treated with dignity and respect. The NTEU CBP Update is a periodic electronic newsletter published by the National Treasury Employees Union for NTEU members at CBP.