The Biden administration is, in effect, telling defense contractor employees who refuse to get COVID-19 vaccinations to take a hike.

On Oct. 22, Arnold Punaro, the chairman of the board of the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA), sent a message to NDIA members concerning the administration’s Executive Order 14042 that requires defense contractor employees to be vaccinated by Dec. 8. Marquee defense firms, including Boeing [BA], Lockheed Martin [LMT], Northrop Grumman [NOC], Raytheon [RTX], and L3Harris, have said that they will abide by the order and will take measures, including removal, for employees who refuse to take the vaccine.

In virtual discussions with the Pentagon acquisition chief’s office of Defense Pricing and Contracting (DPC) and the White House Office of Management and Budget, “we brought several concerns to the virtual table and hit multiple times on two of our key concerns for passing on to the White House,” according to Punaro’s message.

“First is that the smaller a business is, the higher impact it will be to lose even a small number of employees,” Punaro wrote. “We’ve noted that in most cases, these are highly trained/educated individuals with unique skills and often with clearances. We’ve asked for flexibility (testing in lieu of vaccines, remote work, etc.) to be included in the policy along with clear, consistent guidance. Additionally, we noted that with any loss of personnel, there are going to be impacts on contract execution; so, we’ve asked for explicit guidance from contracting officers for equitable adjustments.”

Punaro wrote that “the overarching message coming out of these calls is that the administration is willing to take the risk of companies losing some employees.”

“They believe from their data that there will be ‘noise up front and compliance in the back’ as this directive is implemented (they continue to use the United Airlines case as an example of that where there are around 300 holdouts out of 67K employees),” per Punaro. “Also, their stated goal is the maximum number of Americans vaccinated, so they have given guidance to departments and agencies to broadly interpret and apply the mandate. Because we know your workforce is your most valuable asset and one that is not easily replaced, NDIA does not agree unnecessarily losing employees is an acceptable risk to our companies.”

At a briefing at the Pentagon on Oct. 25, DoD spokesman John Kirby said that he knew of no “pushback by defense contractors with respect to the [vaccination] mandate.”

“I don’t believe we polled every contractor and have a sense of what they’re hearing from their employees, but we obviously support the president’s decision and his order that those who are working on our programs contractually are safe and secure and have been vaccinated.”

Thomas “Buddy” Vanmeter, the president of Local 261C of the International Chemical Workers Union, said that 700 of his local’s members work at a Northrop Grumman plant in Rocket Center, W.Va., making rocket engines for the U.S. Navy, U.S. Army, and third parties, like Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon. Some 60 to 70 percent of the 700 refused to take a COVID-19 vaccine before last week’s executive order, but the executive order convinced some to get vaccinated, Vanmeter said. Nevertheless, 50 percent of the 700 are still refusing to take a vaccination, Vanmeter estimated. Vanmeter said he has worked at the plant for 22 years mixing rocket propellants, casting rockets, and rocket maintenance. The plant is in northeast West Virginia near the town of Keyser and the junction of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.

“We’ve demanded to bargain and filed grievances,” Vanmeter said of the local’s attempts to negotiate with Northrop Grumman. “They have not given us any answers yet except we will be fired.” Vanmeter said that plant administrative staff, who are non-bargaining union employees, “have said there’s class action lawsuits in the works.” Such lawsuits may proceed, as the company has not negotiated with Local 261C on changes to the collective bargaining agreement on the topic of COVID-19 vaccinations, Vanmeter said.

Congressional defense authorizers are considering proposals by defense contractors to indemnify them from lawsuits by employees fired for refusing to take COVID-19 vaccines.

Mandy Smithberger, the director of the Project on Government Oversight’s (POGO) Straus Military Reform Project, said that policy makers must balance stopping the spread of COVID-19 with ensuring the viability of the defense industrial base.

“It’s a very delicate balance,” she said. “I’d want to make sure that the indemnification is not making it harder for the government to get the workforce it needs and to protect their employees.” Smithberger cautioned against a blanket indemnification.

According to Punaro, NDIA has heard from its members that the Biden executive order “is being implemented unevenly across the Department of Defense (DoD) and that uncertainty remains regarding how much information/documentation companies will have to provide in their attestations that their covered workforce is vaccinated, criteria for exceptions (both religious and medical), what is meant by ‘products’ based contracts and what that means to flow-down, and what, if any, indemnification will the government provide.”

Last week, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), called on Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to suspend the vaccination mandate.

“The lack of strategic foresight in the implementation of the COVID vaccination mandate is inexcusable,” Inhofe wrote. “Plainly stated, no service member, Department of Defense civilian or contractor supporting the department should be dismissed due to failure to comply with the mandate until the ramifications of mass dismissal are known. With an ever shrinking candidate pool, hastily executed policies such as this work to further diminish the ability of the department to tap into the finite resource of people critical to national security. The mass attrition of personnel and further shirking of the defense industrial base at this time would only serve to hinder our ability to project power and compete against near-peer adversaries.”

In addition, on Oct. 26, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), a SASC member, introduced the Keeping Our COVID-19 Heroes Employed Act which would remove the mandate for defense contractors. Sens. Inhofe, Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.), Mike Braun (R-Ind.), Tommy Tuberville (R- Ala.), and Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) have co-sponsored the legislation.