Back in September, US President Joe Biden implemented a federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate for government workers in response to surging cases linked with the Delta variant and slow uptake of vaccinations.
He also announced a plan for all companies that employ at least 100 workers to mandate COVID-19 or request weekly proof of negative COVID-19 tests and mandate mask wearing.
Now President Biden has formalized this policy into an emergency temporary standard. In his remarks ahead of the implementation, Biden said: “A year ago we were heading into a Thanksgiving where public health experts were advising against traveling or gathering with family and friends.
“Later this month our tables and our hearts are going to be filled thanks to the vaccines. We’ve made incredible progress over these past nine months but we have to keep going.”
Labor secretary Marty Walsh added: “COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on workers, and we continue to see dangerous levels of cases.
“We must take action to implement this emergency temporary standard to contain the virus and protect people in the workplace against the grave danger of COVID-19.”
Therefore, it is expected that this policy will affect more than 80 million workers across the US; it is estimated that as many as 31 million of them are unvaccinated, according to the New York Times.
The question remains whether this new federal mandate will help the US get through a COVID-19 winter, including Thanksgiving, unscathed by persuading those still reluctant to get vaccinated to comply.
What are the new rules?
The Biden administration is requiring all companies with 100 workers or more to comply by 4 January. Interestingly, the US government is forcing employers to enforce the mask mandate earlier than the vaccine mandate; they have to comply with this measure by 5 December.
The mandate applies to all employees, including those who work part-time, but excludes independent contractors.
But the location of work is important in determining who must comply. It doesn’t apply to those who are working remotely or exclusively outside, but it mandates vaccines or testing for both employees who are in the office full time or splitting their time between the office and working from home.
From 5 December, employers are also required to provide up to four hours’ time off to get vaccinated, as well as sick leave to recover from any side effects from the shot. They are not required to provide leave for employees to get tested or for them to receive a third, extra booster shot.
It is up to companies if they want to allow employees to take advantage of the testing rule or just force them to be vaccinated. It remains unclear if companies or employees will foot the bill for the weekly testing option.
Employees without a religious or medical exemption who refuse to comply could face being disciplined or fired. Even before the federal mandate, it was legal for employers to require “all employees physically entering the workplace to be vaccinated for COVID-19” if they provide exemptions, according to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Employers who refuse to comply with the federal mandate will face fines of up to $14,000 per employee; this will be overseen by the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA).
Talking about the new requirement, Jim Frederick, deputy assistant secretary of labor at OSHA, said: “OSHA estimates that this rule will save thousands of lives and prevent more than 250,000 hospitalizations” after it goes into effect.
“We know that many, many workplaces will be looking at this and starting up as early as today.”
Employers respond to the mandate
This federal mandate follows moves already made by individual employers – including airlines, newspapers like the Washington Post, banks such as Citigroup, and retailers including CVS – so it is no surprise that many business and business groups support the requirement.
Business Roundtable president and CEO Joshua Bolten welcomed the announcement “to extend the implementation period for the vaccine mandate for federal contractors to align with the new OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) for private-sector employers
“Implementation is a critically important issue, and we have called on [the White House Office of Management and Budget] (OMB) to provide necessary flexibility for companies to comply, taking into account employee retention issues, supply chain challenges heading into the upcoming holiday season and the complexities involved for many companies that must comply with the OSHA ETS.
“We support the Administration’s vaccination efforts and continued engagement with stakeholders to ensure implementation is a success.”
While others, such as the American Trucking Association, warned the OMB that many workers are likely to quit rather than get vaccinated. It noted that they might switch to smaller employers not covered by the requirements.
The Retail Industry Leaders Association was also concerned about this and that it would exacerbate existing staffing shortages, according to CNBC.
However, rather than pushing against the mandate all together, these associations are pushing for the Biden administration to delay the implementation until the end of January to give companies more time to comply after the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.