Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough speaks during a news conference Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, at VA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough speaks during a news conference Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, at VA headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Screenshot from video conference)

WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs has started disciplining employees who refuse to comply with the agency’s vaccine mandate, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said Wednesday.

The VA was the first federal agency to mandate that its employees be vaccinated against the coronavirus. There are 420,000 employees at the agency, and most workers had until Oct. 8 to provide proof of vaccination to their local VA Occupational Health Office.

So far, about 70% of employees have shared their vaccination status with the VA. The department didn’t provide data Wednesday about how many employees had been vaccinated. McDonough said he would provide updates on those numbers as they became available.

The disciplinary process has begun for those employees who are refusing vaccines or who haven’t shared their vaccination status, he said. Undergoing counseling is the first step in the process, followed by several other measures before employees are terminated if they continue to refuse vaccines.

“If they choose not to do it, and after our disciplinary process continue not to do it, they’ll be fired,” McDonough said. “It starts with counseling and ends with separation.”

Employees were allowed to request exemptions from the mandate for health or religious reasons. It was unknown Wednesday how many exemptions had been filed, but McDonough said the number of requests for religious exemptions was larger than those who sought exemptions for the flu vaccine last year.

McDonough said he might deny some of those requests if faced with a situation of “undue hardship.” That might occur if there aren’t enough vaccinated health care workers to treat veterans, he said.

VA officials are trying to determine the locations and job duties of employees who might refuse vaccines. The agency could use its authority to move other VA employees to regions where hospitals and clinics could become short-staffed, McDonough said.

“We’re looking really hard at it,” he said. “We’re trying to get a sense as best we can where people might be and what the nature of employment might be so we’re in a position to do that.”

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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