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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Nurse Vicki Reinshagen talks to a vaccine recipient as nurse Tracy Brown prepares the shot last month at the CARTA bus barn vaccination center. Under President Joe Biden's executive order for all federal employees, TVA workers will be required by Monday to show proof that they have received the COVID-19 vaccine shots or they will begin a progressive disciplinary process that will include education, testing and ultimately dismissal from their jobs if they don't get the vaccine or obtain a religious or medical exemption to the requirement.

TVA workers face a Monday deadline to show proof they have been vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus under President Joe Biden's executive order for federal employees.

But Tennessee Valley Authority officials say they are still working with unvaccinated employees and won't immediately fire employees next week who are not fully vaccinated.

TVA plans a series of vaccination education programs, COVID-19 regular testing and other incentives to convince unvaccinated workers to get their preventive shots. Employees may also request religious or medical exemptions and accommodations.

But ultimately, TVA officials said employees who are not granted such exemptions will have to get the vaccine to keep their jobs, even if they work remotely — unless court challenges to such government mandates overrule the White House directive.

Despite some GOP Congressional concerns about what the mandate may do to staffing levels, TVA officials say they are ready to keep the lights on and the heat coming this winter.

"TVA took a position early on that we would like to see all of our employees vaccinated so the executive order that issued the vaccination mandate is consistent with what we want to see happen," TVA President Jeff Lyash said during an earnings call with analysts this week. "All the way through the pandemic, our workforce has been very effective in following process, procedures and controls so that our Covid infection rates across the board are lower than the general population."

Employees have been encouraged by access to the vaccines at the worksite and incentive payments to receive the shots. Lyash said vaccination rates among TVA employees continue to improve.

But TVA officials declined to reveal what share of its workforce is now vaccinated or potentially how many workers it could lose once the vaccine mandate is fully enforced.

"Our share of vaccinated workforce is consistently improving and we expect as we work through this process we'll achieve the right level of vaccinations in the organization, and I don't expect any disruptions in our business as a result of this," Lyash said.

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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tennessee Valley Authority President Jeffrey Lyash

Sue Collins, executive vice president and chief people and communications officer at TVA, said the utility has worked with its 17 employee unions and its employees to come up with a progressive discipline process.

"The focus is on education and understanding so that employees can make very informed decisions," she said.

On Monday, any TVA employee who has not submitted proof of COVID-19 vaccination or received a religious or medical exemption will go into an instructional program at TVA as part of an "employee responsibility process" the utility worked out with its employee unions.

"That is focused on education and answering questions and making sure they have the information they need to be able to make the best decision that they can," Collins said.

Unvaccinated workers will be subject to COVID-19 testing every four days, starting next week. TVA will initially pay for such tests, but over time, employees would be required to pay for the test and ultimately under Biden's executive order, all of TVA's employees who are not granted exemptions to the mandate will be required to get the vaccine or lose their jobs.

"The outcome that we are all looking for is for folks to become fully vaccinated to comply with this executive order," Collins said.

As an added incentive for its employees to get vaccinated, TVA will provide a direct payment of $250 and another $250 credit toward any employee's health care costs if they show proof of their vaccination.

Tennessee congressional representatives opposed to the government vaccine mandate have said they have heard from many TVA employees who say they will refuse to get the vaccine, even with such incentives and potential job losses if they do not get the shot.

In a letter to the White House last month, U.S. Reps. Chuck Fleischmann of Ooltewah, Scott DesJarlais of Sherwood, Mark Green of Portland and John Rose of Cookeville warned TVA could be caught short-staffed if the vaccine mandate leads many workers to quit.

"Many TVA employees have expressed their intent to resign due to this mandate, even if it means retraining into different job fields," the GOP lawmakers said in their appeal to Biden to withdraw his executive order.

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Sue Collins is executive vice president and chief people & communications officer at TVA.

DesJarlais, a medical doctor before being elected to Congress in 2010, said he worries 20% to 30% of TVA's 10,000-employee staff may be unvaccinated "and on Nov. 22 they could lose their jobs."

DesJarlais said that could jeopardize operations of the seven nuclear reactors and other power generating and transmission facilities TVA operates across its seven-state region.

An online petition on change.org urges TVA to rescind its vaccine mandate, claiming that "receiving the COVID 19 vaccination should be a personal choice and not a decision of TVA."

As of Wednesday, the petition had been signed by 1,314 people.

"I didn't serve in the Marine Corps three deployments to come back and be forced to take something I don't believe is safe," said Brandon Spencer of Arab, Alabama, one of the petition signers.

Biden said he is pushing for the mandate because he believes vaccines are the best way to reduce the spread of the virus, which has already claimed the lives of more than 763,000 Americans, including 16,740 in Tennessee.

TVA announced the employee vaccine mandate in September following an executive order from the White House, and additional guidance received from the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force for federal employees.

Although TVA no longer receives any direct taxpayer support for its operations, TVA attorneys have determined the federally-owned corporation is subject to regulations by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which manages the U.S. civilian service.

The U.S. Postal Service, which is also an independent federal agency, said the day after Biden announced the vaccine mandate for all federal employees on Sept. 9, that post office employees were not included under the executive order.

However, last month, the service said it will be covered under a separate Occupational Safety and Health Administration order for all employees with more than 100 employees to either have their staff vaccinated or conduct weekly COVID-19 tests. The OSHA order has been temporarily suspended while a federal court considers a legal challenge.

Collins said TVA also is talking with its labor unions about the vaccine mandate, but she said TVA attorneys determined the federal utility was subject to the executive order.

"We are subject to the executive order, and all TVA employees are subject to the vaccine mandate," Collins said.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

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Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / A cybersecurity employee works inside the Cybersecurity Operations Center at the Tennessee Valley Authority
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