Biden vaccine
© AP Photo/Susan Walsh
President Joe Biden speaks about COVID-19 vaccinations after touring a Clayco Corporation construction site for a Microsoft data center in Elk Grove Village, Ill., Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021.
Federal workers will not be punished for failing to comply with President Joe Biden's vaccination mandate until next year, the White House announced Monday.

The deadline for federal workers to receive the vaccine or face suspension or firing was Nov. 22. The White House said 96.5% of the 3.5 million employee workforce, the country's largest, has already complied.

A spokesperson for the Office of Management and Budget said Monday that the deadline was "not a cliff and that our goal is to protect workers, not penalize anyone."

"That's why we've encouraged agencies to continue the education and counseling period in December for the small number of employees not already in compliance, and delay most suspensions and removals until the new year," the spokesperson said. "We're seeing strong increase in compliance and believe this is the best approach to vaccinate more employees."

Federal employees are allowed to request a medical or religious exemption from the vaccine mandate.

Biden had initially given federal workers the choice of undergoing regular testing instead of getting vaccinated, but said in September that testing opt-out would no longer be an option. Federal contractors must also meet a separate vaccination requirement.

The president also established a series of vaccination requirements in an effort to pressure the unvaccinated to get the shots, including a requirement that all companies with at least 100 workers require that their employees get vaccinated or regularly tested. That requirement has been blocked temporarily in the courts.

The enforcement news came as Biden spoke from the White House Monday morning about the new omicron variant and the potential threat it poses to the U.S. He called the variant a "cause for concern, not a cause for panic" and urged unvaccinated Americans to get their first shots and for those who are vaccinated to get booster shots.