USDA vaccine mandate affects county FSA offices
On September 20 2021, Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack issued a letter to all USDA employees stating that they are all required to receive the Covid19 vaccine in accordance with executive order 14043 requiring all federal employees (except postal service employees) and all businesses with over 100 employees to be fully vaccinated. This mandate includes all federal General Schedule (GS) employees, non-federal county office (CO) employees in the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and elected and appointed FSA County and State Committee members (collectively “non-federal employees). All employees are required to be two weeks post final dose of the vaccine by Nov. 22, 2021. A letter dated Sept. 22, 2021 sent by Zach Ducheneaux, Farm Service Agency Administrator, outlined the vaccination dates and stated that all employees will be required to provide proof of vaccination.
A number of past and present FSA employees have spoken to us anonymously about the mandate.
“From what I’m seeing, local offices don’t like the idea of the mandate. Even the vaccinated aren’t on board with forcing the unvaccinated. In our office everyone is on board to not get it and we are going to hold out as long as we can but we are looking for other (employment) opportunities. Maybe a lawsuit or an injunction from a judge might help, we are waiting for more guidance but the deadline is within a week,” source one said.
One concern of producers and employees alike is the lack of service that could cause hardship if offices are forced to close or operate with significantly fewer staff than before. “It will be interesting how the system will work if it comes to that. Even if one out of three stays there is way too much of a work load and they will have no way to handle it,” source one said. “They are taking free will and choice away. If you want to get vaccinated please do your own research and make an informed decision with as much information as possible.”
The individuals all feel that this mandate is an attack on person freedom and is in violation of constitutional law. They also feel that the government is seeing how far they can push it and producers might be the next group required to comply. They all agree that this will have a very negative impact on the local offices and ultimately producers.
“I feel that I’ll be terminated from my job which is hard to fill. I’m in the process of running for my third term and never had anyone run against me and I’ve been wanting for the job to go to someone else. As far as handling it, out of respect for other FSA employees I will not get the shot. The government is putting their employees in a tough spot and if one more person being terminated helps, I’m glad to be that person. I’m not sure about two COC members, I do know one was vaccinated and I assume the the other two were also,” Jeremy Maher said, a North Dakota Committee member.
Another source said that their decision to resign was due in part to overwork of the employees and the vaccine mandate. “I loved getting the help out to the farmers and ranchers. (This mandate) is a horrible thing, a couple years ago it was my body, my rights and what happened to HIPPA and privacy of my medical information. (If employees quit over the mandate) the offices are really going to struggle to process payments and producers will be very frustrated and the employees will be overworked. Tensions are running high and it’s not going to be a good scene. There are not enough bodies to help. This will severely impact the USDA. It is very frustrating, the people in DC who make the rules don’t understand, this will hurt producers,” source two said.
“I don’t think they will have many community committees members left, they only work for a few hours a month and there has been no in person meetings, so why would they even deal with it? This will leave the offices in a bad position, they need the community members, and they barely have enough people now so they will have vacant committees,” said source two.
We reached out to the federal public relations office for the NRCS but they failed to respond and the South Dakota acting state conservation director Jackie Byam also declined to comment.
An FSA employee with over 30 years experience and only a year to retirement is willing to walk away from it all if her religious exemption is denied. “If I don’t get it, I’m gone, 34 years and a whole lot of knowledge will go with me and I know all the producers. This (mandate) will be a detriment to local FSA offices. Even for them to try and hire replacements, when we hired a part time employees it took 3 months for the background check, training and their cards. And even now the overworked employees are expected to train the new hires. I’m not anti-vaccine, I just don’t want to be forced and I’ll stand by my convictions.”
This individual is part of some social media groups of USDA employees and said that most of them are not going to comply and will be taking the chance of being fired. Concerned producers may want to contact their state representatives, state attorney generals, governors and elected officials in Washington DC to fight these mandates.
With the vaccine mandate, employers are required according to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to make reasonable accommodations for employees who object to work requirements because of “sincerely held” religious beliefs. In addition to religious exemptions there are also medical exemptions employees can file. But many employees from the military to professional sports players are having their exemptions denied.
The Labor Department stated that an accommodation can be denied if it causes an undue burden on the employer. In some cases where an exemption was approved the accommodation was to place the employee on unpaid leave. Many employees are filing lawsuit against their employers and urging their state lawmakers to stand against what they feel are infringements on person freedoms. Already some federal judges have issued stays in cases where employees have been placed on unpaid leave while their exemptions are processed.
Executive Order by the President
“I have determined that to promote the health and safety of the Federal workforce and the efficiency of the civil service, it is necessary to require COVID-19 vaccination for all Federal employees, subject to such exceptions as required by law….Each agency shall implement, to the extent consistent with applicable law, a program to require COVID-19 vaccination for all of its Federal employees, with exceptions only as required by law,” says the Executive Order signed by the President on Sept. 9, 2021.
The EO states that the term “agency” is referring to Executive Agencies. Reuters’ Factcheckers say that because the Legislative and Judicial branches of government are separate from the Executive branch, Senators, House members, their staff, as well anyone working under the Judicial branch of government, are not subject to the mandate.
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