Tens of millions of Americans who work for companies with 100 or more employees will be required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by January 4 or weekly tested for the virus, in accordance with government regulations issued Thursday.
The new requirements, which were first introduced by President Joe Biden in September, will apply to an estimated 84 million workers in medium and large businesses, although it is unclear how many of these workers are not vaccinated.
OSHA regulations will force companies to require unvaccinated workers to test negative for COVID-19 at least once a week and wear a mask in the workplace.
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Stricter rules will apply to 17 million more people who work in nursing homes, hospitals and other institutions receiving money from Medicare and Medicaid. These workers will not be able to get tested – they will need to be vaccinated.
Workers will be able to ask for an exemption for medical or religious reasons.
OSHA said companies that fail to comply with the rules could face fines of up to $ 14,000 for violation.
It was unclear how OSHA planned to enforce the regulations. A senior administration official said the agency would target companies if it received complaints.
The publication of the rules followed weeks of regulatory review and meetings with business groups, trade unions and others. The regulation is the cornerstone of Biden’s most aggressive efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19, which has killed more than 740,000 people in the United States.
OSHA has developed emergency regulations to protect workers from imminent health hazards. The agency estimates that vaccinations will save more than 6,500 workers’ lives and prevent more than 250,000 hospitalizations over the next six months.
Senior administration officials said the rules abolish conflicting state laws or orders, including those that prohibit employers from requiring vaccinations, testing, or the wearing of masks.
The administration will immediately face a challenge from Republican government officials who are keen to fight Biden in court and in Congress. Senate Republicans immediately petitioned for a vote to overturn the vaccination mandate, but with Democrats in control of the House, the attempt will almost certainly fail.
More than two dozen Republicans serving as state attorneys general have said they plan to sue, arguing that only Congress can pass such broad demands in a state of emergency.
Last week, 19 states sued to stop Biden’s narrower mandate to vaccinate federal contractors. The requirement was supposed to go into effect on December 8, but the administration said Thursday it would be delayed until January 4 to meet requirements for other major employers and healthcare providers.
The regulations require workers to receive either two doses of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or one dose of Johnson & Johnson vaccine by January 4, or be tested weekly. Employees who test positive should be suspended from work.
Companies will not be required to provide or pay for tests, but they must provide paid time for vaccinations and sick leave to recover from side effects that prevent them from working. The requirements for masks and paid shooting leave will take effect on 5 December.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid have issued a separate regulation requiring workers in 76,000 health care providers and home health care providers who receive funding from government health programs to be vaccinated. A senior administration official said several large private health organizations have imposed their own mandates and achieved high vaccination rates – 96% or higher – without widespread layoffs.
The White House sees the new demands as a powerful tool to weed out the tens of millions of Americans who have so far refused a chance.
For weeks, Biden urged businesses not to wait for OSHA rules to take effect. He advertised companies that had already announced their own vaccine requirements and encouraged other companies to follow suit.
Administration officials say the effort is paying off: about 70% of the country’s adult population is fully vaccinated.
Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, said in late July that it requires all employees at its headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, as well as its managers who travel to the United States, to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by October 4. The company stopped demanding shots for its frontline workers.
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United Airlines demanded that U.S. employees be vaccinated or fired. Only a very small fraction of the 67,000 workers refused to do so.
In August, Tyson Foods told its 120,000 US workers that they must get vaccinated by November 1. A week before that deadline, the company said 96% of its employees were fully vaccinated.
However, some companies have expressed concern that some employees who are hesitant to get vaccinated could quit, leaving their workforce even smaller in an already tense job market.
Several large business groups have complained about the terms of the mandate. Retailers feared the requirement could disrupt their operations during the critical Christmas shopping season. Retailers and others also said this could exacerbate supply chain disruptions.
The National Retail Federation said the new rules are unnecessary as the moving average number of new daily deals in the US has dropped by more than half since September.
“Nonetheless, the Biden administration has decided to declare an ’emergency’ and impose onerous new demands on retailers during a crucial holiday shopping season,” said David French, senior vice president of the trading group.
The number of new cases of COVID-19 infections in the United States is still declining due to the summer spike caused by the highly contagious variant of the delta, but the rate of decline has slowed in recent weeks. The 7-day moving average is down 6% from two weeks ago, with more than 76,000 new cases and 1,200 deaths per day.
Powers of federal contractors have led to demonstrations by opponents, including workers at NASA’s Mississippi rocket engine test site. Some have stated that they are immune because they contracted COVID-19. Others said the vaccines violated their religious beliefs and constitutional rights.
“No one should be forced into treatment just to keep their job,” said Neela Trumbach, an engineer at the site. “There are years and years of experience and skill here, and I just want anyone watching to see what we could lose here if these people don’t keep their jobs.”
Dozens of groups sought to meet with administration officials to voice their concerns and objections to possible provisions of the OSHA rule, including the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Manufacturers Association, AFL-CIO, and anti-vaccine organizations.
Associated Press contributors Paul Wiseman of Washington, Stacy Plaisance-Jenkins of Picayune, Mississippi, and Matt Aubrien of Providence, RI contributed to this report.