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 demands are the Biden administration’s boldest move, yet to convince reluctant Americans to finally get a vaccine that has been widely available for months or face financial repercussions. Administration officials believe that if successful, it will go a long way in ending the pandemic that has killed more than 750,000 Americans.
First presented by President Joe Biden in September, the requirements will apply to an estimated 84 million workers in medium and large businesses, although it is unclear how many of these workers are unvaccinated.
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.
OSHA has left open the possibility of expanding requirements for small businesses. He asked for public comment on whether employers with fewer than 100 employees can conduct vaccination or testing programs.
Tighter rules will apply to an additional 17 million people working 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.
The requirements do not apply to people who work at home or outdoors.
Biden formulated the problem as a simple choice between vaccinating more people or prolonging the pandemic.
“While I would have preferred the requirements not become necessary, too many people remain unvaccinated for us to get out of this pandemic for good,” he said in a statement Thursday.
Biden said his call for businesses to impose mandates and his own previous demands on military and federal contractors have helped reduce the number of unvaccinated Americans over the age of 12 from 100 million at the end of July to about 60 million now.
The measures did not result in mass layoffs or shortages of workers, he said, adding that vaccines were previously required to fight other diseases.
OSHA said companies that fail to comply with the rules could face fines of up to $ 14,000 for violation.
The agency will face enforcement challenges. Even with state aid, OSHA has only 1,850 inspectors who supervise 130 million workers in 8 million jobs. An administration spokesman said the agency would respond to whistle-blower complaints and conduct limited spot checks.
The publication of the rules followed weeks of regulatory review and meetings with business groups, trade unions and others.
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.
The rules set out potential legal battles over the line of addiction between the states and the federal government. Several states and Republican governors have threatened to sue, arguing that the administration does not have the authority to enact such broad mandates in a state of emergency.
OSHA’s parent agency, the Department of Labor, says it has a solid legal foundation. The department’s chief attorney, Sima Nanda, said OSHA rules abolish conflicting state laws or orders, including those that prohibit employers from requiring vaccinations, testing, or the use of face masks.
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.
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 removed from the workplace.
Companies will not be required to provide or pay for tests for unvaccinated workers, 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.
Applicants who are eligible must verify the vaccination status of their employees by checking documents such as CDC vaccination cards, records from doctors or pharmacies, or even an employee’s own signed statement.
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.
A previously announced requirement for federal contractors to vaccinate workers was supposed to go into effect on December 8, but the administration delayed the measure until January 4 to meet requirements for other major employers and healthcare providers. Already more than a dozen states have sued contractors to block the mandate.
For weeks, Biden has urged businesses not to wait for OSHA to take action. He advertised businesses that announced their own vaccine requirements and encouraged others to follow suit.
Administration officials say the effort is paying off: about 70% of adults are fully vaccinated.
In recent years, more and more vaccinations have begun to be introduced in the workplace: hospitals, state and local governments, as well as some large corporations, are demanding COVID-19 vaccinations for their employees. Mandates have led to overwhelming compliance – in some cases 99% of employees – although a small but high-profile number of employees have faced layoffs, sued, or sought relief.
United Airlines has demanded that 67,000 U.S. employees be vaccinated or fired. Only a couple of hundred refused to do so, although about 2,000 are asking for release.
In August, Tyson Foods told its 120,000 US workers that they should be vaccinated by November 1. The company said Thursday that more than 96% of its employees have been vaccinated, including 60,500 people who have been vaccinated since the August announcement.
Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, said in late July that it requires all employees at its Bentonville, Arkansas headquarters and managers traveling in the U.S. to be vaccinated by October 4. are line workers, however.
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 corporate groups, including the Business Roundtable, endorsed the mandate. However, retail groups feared this requirement could disrupt their operations during the critical Christmas shopping period. 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 infections in the US 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.
Cole Stevenson, a 34-year-old automobile worker at the Ford Rouge truck plant in Dearborn, Michigan, said he still doesn’t like the vaccine developed just a year ago.
He intends to take COVID-19 tests weekly and says he will not reconsider vaccinations, even if tests are a financial or logistical burden.
“It’s getting disgusting how much the government thinks they can participate in people’s lives,” he said. “If it all cools down, and the number of cases decreases, then go away – don’t impose it on people.”
Associated Press contributors Paul Wiseman and Hope Yen in Washington DC, Tom Crisher and Dee-Ann Durbin in Detroit, Stacy Plaisance-Jenkins in Picayune, Mississippi, and Matt Aubrien in Providence, RI have contributed.