Millions of Americans working at companies with 100 or more employees will be required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by January 4 or undergo weekly tests for the virus under government rules released Thursday.
The new requirements, which were first previewed by President Joe Biden in September, will apply to about 84 million workers in medium and large businesses, although it is unclear how many of those workers have not been vaccinated.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules will mandate companies to require that non-vaccinated employees test negative for COVID-19 at least once a week and wear masks at the workplace.
OSHA left open the possibility of expanding the requirement to small businesses. It asked for public comment on whether employers with fewer than 100 employees can handle vaccination or testing programs.
The stricter rules will apply to another 17 million people who work in nursing homes, hospitals and other facilities receiving funding from Medicare and Medicaid. Those workers would not have the option of testing – they would need to be vaccinated.
Workers will be able to demand exemption on medical or religious grounds.
Biden framed the issue as a simple choice between getting more people vaccinated or prolonging the pandemic.
“While I would have very much liked that necessities weren’t necessary, many people remain unconvinced of our way out of this pandemic,” he said in a statement on Thursday.
Biden said his incentives to enforce mandates for businesses and his own previous requirements for military and federal contractors helped reduce the number of uninsured Americans from more than 12 million uninsured Americans from 100 million now to nearly 60 million at the end of July. have helped.
Those measures have not led to mass shootings or labor shortages, he said, adding that vaccines are needed earlier to fight other diseases.
OSHA said companies that fail to comply with the rules could face penalties of about $14,000 per violation.
It was unclear how OSHA planned to enforce the rules: at the state level, the agency has only 1,850 inspectors, by counting the relevant regulators. To supervise 130 million workers at 8 million workplaces. A senior administration official said OSHA will target companies if it receives a complaint.
The release of the rules followed weeks of regulatory review and meetings with business groups, labor unions and others. The rules are a cornerstone of Biden’s most aggressive effort to combat the spread of COVID-19, which has killed more than 740,000 people in the US.
OSHA drafted rules under emergency authorization to protect employees from an imminent health hazard. The agency estimated the vaccine mandate would 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 block conflicting state laws or orders, including those that prohibit employers from getting vaccinated, tested or wearing face masks.
The administration will face an immediate challenge from Republican state officials who are eager to fight Biden in court and in Congress. Senate Republicans immediately launched a petition to vote to reverse the vaccine mandate, but with Democrats controlling the chamber, the effort is almost certain to fail.
More than two dozen Republicans serving as state attorney general have indicated they plan to sue, arguing that only Congress can enforce such broad requirements under emergency authorization.
Last week, 19 states sued to block Biden’s narrow mandate that employees of federal contractors be vaccinated. The requirement was due to take effect on December 8, but the administration said on Thursday it would be delayed until January 4 to meet requirements from other large employers and health care providers.
Rule Employees will be required to receive two doses of Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or one dose of Johnson & Johnson vaccine by January 4 or undergo weekly testing. Employees who test positive should be removed from the workplace.
The requirements will not apply to those who work at home or outside.
Companies will not be required to provide or pay for tests, but they will have to give employees paid time off to receive vaccines and sick leave to recover from side effects that keep them from working. The requirements for masks and paid time off for shots will be effective from December 5.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued a separate rule requiring vaccinations for workers in 76,000 health facilities and home health care providers who receive funding from government health programs. A senior administration official said several large private health care organizations implemented their own mandates and achieved high vaccination rates – 96% or more – without widespread resignation.
For weeks, Biden has encouraged businesses not to wait OSHA rules to take effect. He has touted businesses that have already announced vaccine mandates of their own and urged other companies to follow his lead.
Administration officials say those efforts are paying off, with about 70% of the country’s adults now fully vaccinated.
Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, said in late July that it required all employees at its headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, as well as its managers traveling within the US, to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by October 4. . But the company had reduced the need for shots to its frontline workers.
United Airlines required US employees to be vaccinated or face termination. Very few of its 67,000 employees refused to do so.
In August, Tyson Foods told its 120,000 US employees that they should be vaccinated by November 1. A week before that deadline, the company said 96% of its employees were fully vaccinated.
However, some companies have expressed apprehension That some vaccine-hesitant workers may quit, making their workforce even thinner in an already tight labor market.
Several large business groups complained about the timing of the mandate. Retail groups worried that the need could disrupt their operations during the crucial Christmas shopping period. Retailers and others also said it could make supply chain disruptions worse.
The National Retail Federation suggested the new rules are not needed because the rolling average number of new daily cases in the US has fallen by more than half since September.
“Still, the Biden administration has chosen to declare an ’emergency’ and impose new requirements on retailers during the crucial holiday shopping season,” said David French, a senior vice president at the trade group.
The number of new COVID-19 infections in the US is still falling sharply over the summer due to the highly infectious Delta variant, 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.
Earlier mandates on federal contractors sparked protests by opponents, including workers at the NASA rocket engine test site in Mississippi. Some said they were immune because they contracted COVID-19. Others said the vaccines violated their religious beliefs and constitutional rights.
“No one should be forced to seek medical treatment to keep their job,” said Nyla Trumbach, an engineer at the site. “There’s years and years of experience and skill here, and I want anyone who is looking to see what we stand to lose here if these people don’t keep their jobs.”
Associated Press Writers Paul Wiseman in Washington, Tom Crischer and Dee-Ann Durbin in Detroit, Stacy Pleasance-Jenkins in Picayune, Mississippi, and Matt O’Brien in Providence, Rhode Island contributed.