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University of Tennessee enforcing vaccine mandate for employees connected to federal contracts

UT President Randy Boyd said it will be up to each campus to determine which employees and locations are subject to the federal mandate.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The University of Tennessee said it is enforcing a mandate that will require employees who do work connected to federal contracts across the system to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by December 8.

UT President Randy Boyd sent a letter to employees outlining the details of the mandate, saying the university is required to comply with an executive order issued by President Joe Biden in September mandating COVID-19 vaccines for all federal contractors. 

Boyd said the system holds more than 1,900 contracts that may fall under the federal mandates, and employees who do work on those contracts or in the same location as those employees will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

The mandate applies broadly, and the university is "closely reviewing" the order to determine how it applies to all 12,000-plus employees across each of its campuses. At the moment, Boyd said it will be up to each campus to determine which employees and locations are subject to the federal mandate.

UT said employees covered under the mandate will be legally entitled to an accommodation due to a medical condition or religious belief, later clarifying that those accommodations will not include suspending employees without pay. 

For context, "accommodations" can mean employees are put on unpaid leave without benefits until the mandate ends or they decide to get vaccinated, which is what recently sparked a legal battle between some employees at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and its federally contracted operator, UT-Battelle, after it announced its vaccine mandate. UT-Battelle is non-profit limited liability partnership between the University of Tennessee and the Ohio-based Battelle Memorial Institute established two decades ago specifically to manage and operate ORNL for the U.S. Department of Energy.

Employees under the federal mandate will not be given the option private company employees have of being tested for COVID-19 weekly as an alternative to the vaccine requirement. Employees who had a prior COVID-19 infection, as well as employees working remotely, are still required to be vaccinated. 

Boyd said in the letter the federal mandate is being challenged in courts, but said the resolution of those cases is uncertain. U.S. Supreme Court justices have declined to block vaccine mandates in several circumstances, including declining an emergency injunction to block a statewide mandate for Maine health care workers on Tuesday.

"In the meantime, I am strongly urging all UT employees who have not been vaccinated to once again consider getting vaccinated," Boyd said. "I recognize that this is a very sensitive topic and that there are a wide variety of strongly held feelings about COVID-19 mitigation measures. We are in unchartered territory, but we are doing everything within our control to thoughtfully consider how best to address this latest federal mandate."

The UT System is comprised of the flagship campus in Knoxville, as well as campuses in Chattanooga, Pulaski and Martin, the Health Science Center in Memphis, the Space Institute in Tullahoma, the statewide Institute of Agriculture, and the Institute for Public Service. UT has a presence in all 95 Tennessee counties. 

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