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‘Significant progress’ in COVID-19 vaccinations at USDA

USDA “critical services” will not be disrupted by the Biden administration mandate for federal workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, said the department on Monday as the deadline passed for inoculations. Farm and livestock groups said earlier this month that the mandate might leave the USDA short of meat inspectors or staff at its local offices.

In a statement, the USDA said it has made “significant progress ensuring compliance across the agency” since President Biden announced the vaccine requirement in September. “Implementation of the requirement will not result in any disruptions to critical services the American people depend on,” it said.

Compliance data will be available starting on Wednesday, “as we continue collecting and compiling the data,” said the USDA. The USDA lists a staff of roughly 92,000 employees in 29 agencies and 4,500 locations. The Forest Service has the largest workforce, nearly 31,000 people, among USDA agencies.

About 90% of federal employees were partially or fully vaccinated, said Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator. An additional 5% have requested or received an exemption or an extension. Some 3.5 million employees were affected by the mandate.

“So we are successfully implementing vaccination requirements for the largest workforce in the United States, with federal employees in every part of the nation and around the world,” said Zients during a briefing. “The deadline is this evening … It’s not an endpoint. We’ll continue to work with people, answer their questions, provide counseling and education, and get more and more people vaccinated.”

“We’re confident … that most of the folks at USDA will be vaccinated,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on November 7. He said there had been “a pretty robust response” to the mandate to be vaccinated or to seek a waiver. In an October memo, the USDA told employees it would “pursue disciplinary measures, up to and including removal from federal services” for employees who refuse vaccination and do not request a medical or religious exemption.

The vaccination status of USDA meat inspectors was a key question among livestock groups because most slaughterhouses cannot operate without inspectors in the plant. “We are gravely concerned about the potential loss of FSIS employees at packing plants as a result of its implementation, along with so many other USDA staff who serve in critical roles across agencies and mission areas within the department,” said the farm and livestock groups in a November 10 letter to Vilsack.

While the USDA lists a staff of 92,000, there is a quirk. The figure includes 7,000 “non-federal” staff who work in USDA Farm Service Agency offices but who were hired through the farmer-elected county committees that guide local operations. USDA budget documents say the FSA has 2,950 federal employees.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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