In-Depth: 35,000 San Diegans impacted by federal vaccine mandate

Posted at 6:10 PM, Jul 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-30 11:37:22-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- Tens of thousands of federal employees in San Diego will be impacted by the new COVID-19 vaccine requirement announced Thursday by President Joe Biden.

The policy requires all federal civilian employees to show proof of vaccination or face enhanced health screening procedures.

Unvaccinated federal workers must submit to testing one to two times per week, wear a mask on the job, physically distance themselves from others, and agree to restrictions on official travel.

San Diego County had 35,488 federal civilian employees as of 2017, making it the government's fifth-largest metro hub in the country. Employment statistics for local regions are only published every few years.

Uniformed military service members and postal service workers are not considered federal civilian employees. The president directed the military Thursday to begin studying a potential mandate for service members.

Across California, there are 146,755 federal civilian employees, the most anywhere outside of the greater Washington D.C. area, according to March 2021 data from the Office of Personnel Management.

They work in a wide range of agencies, but the two largest cohorts are civilians working in the Navy and the Department of Veterans Affairs, with 38,738 and 34,945 employees, respectively.

The mandate represents the most dramatic action yet to increase vaccination rates as the highly contagious delta variant bears down on the country. It will likely face legal challenges.

“It's probably legal, but there is still a question mark,” said UC Hastings law professor Dorit Reiss, a leading expert on vaccine mandates.

The question mark has to do with the vaccines’ regulatory status. All three shots in the U.S. are currently only authorized for emergency use and do not have full approval from the FDA. Courts have not weighed in on this regulatory question before, although a federal court in Texas ruled in favor of a vaccine mandate last month.

Federal employees tend to have strong unions and collective bargaining rights that could also complicate the roll-out of these new requirements. But Reiss said the nature of this mandate is important.

“The government is not saying ‘vaccinate or you're fired,’” she said. “That's a lot harder to challenge.”

By offering employees an option to go unvaccinated with enhanced screening procedures, a court is more likely to consider the mandate reasonable, Reiss said.

“I think there's a very good chance a court will uphold this mandate,” she said. “But there's also probably a 20 to 30 percent chance it won’t.”

The new vaccination requirements will also apply to contractors working at federal sites.