Biden vaccine mandate: What workers and employers should know

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The Biden administration on Thursday unveiled its new COVID-19 standards for businesses, the U.S. government's biggest push yet to encourage widespread vaccination. The new requirements are raising questions about the process for implementing, costs and timing of the rules for workers and their bosses.

Under the plan, employers with more than 100 employees must choose whether they will require workers to be fully vaccinated or undergo weekly testing within 30 days of the plan's publication in the Federal Register. By January 4, those businesses must implement the mandate. The so-called “emergency temporary standard” was requested by President Biden as part of his September COVID-19 action plan, and will be overseen by the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The reaction from businesses ranged from support to alarm, with the trade group Truckload Carriers Association warning that the rule will prove to be “disastrous” as it could lead to an “exodus” of truck drivers during the ongoing supply-chain crisis. But Jim Frederick, deputy assistant secretary of labor at OSHA, said the agency believes the “vast majority” of workplaces will comply with the new requirement.

“OSHA estimates that this rule will save thousands of lives and prevent more than 250,000 hospitalizations” after it goes into effect, Frederick said in a conference call with reporters on Thursday. “We know that many, many workplaces will be looking at this and starting up as early as today.”

Here's what to know about the new rule. 

Who is affected by the government mandate? 

The new rule covers all private-sector business with at least 100 employees. The Biden administration on Thursday said about 84 million workers will be impacted by the requirements — roughly two-thirds of the nation's private-sector labor force. 

The Biden administration has created separate vaccine requirements for federal workers. OSHA could eventually choose to extend the COVID-19 rule to smaller businesses, according to the agency. 

“OSHA will consider whether to extend the rule to smaller businesses” during the open comment period after the rule is published on the Federal Register, Solicitor of Labor Seema Nanda said on the conference call. 

Are remote workers covered by the mandate? 

The mandate doesn't apply to remote workers who work exclusively from home, said Keith Wilkes, a labor and employment partner at the law firm Hall Estill in an emailed statement.

But, he added, if an unvaccinated office employee has been teleworking for a few weeks and then must go into the office where other workers will be present, that worker must receive a COVID-19 test within seven days prior to that in-office day. 

OSHA also said that employees who work exclusively outdoors won't have to comply with the mandate. 

What are the deadlines for the mandate?

There are two deadlines, OSHA said.

  • By December 5, employers must comply with most requirements of the new mandate, such as ensuring that unvaccinated workers wear a mask at their workplace. Employers must also choose whether they will require vaccinations or weekly testing by this date.
  • By January 4, employers must ensure workers are either vaccinated or begin testing unvaccinated employees every week. 
  • Also by January 4, workers who are required to be vaccinated must be fully vaccinated. 

The federal government is staggering the rollout to give employers enough time to gather information about their workers' vaccination statuses, Nanda said. 

Can I get a religious or medical exemption?

In some case, yes, according to OSHA. 

“Some employees will be requesting exemptions for medical accommodations. There may be some with medical contra-indications” while others may have religious beliefs that prompt them to ask for a exemption, Frederick of OSHA said. “The [mandate] does account for that.”

How will employers check vaccinations?

Generally, employees can provide their COVID-19 vaccination card to their bosses, OSHA's Frederick said. 

In cases where vaccinated employees can't provide a vaccination card, the regulatory agency will “provide an attestation process” for workers to state that they've been vaccinated. 

Will I get paid time off to get vaccinated? 

Yes, OSHA says. Businesses that are covered by the rule are required to provide paid time off for workers to get vaccinated. 

Will I get paid time off if I experience vaccine side effects? 

Yes, according to OSHA. All businesses that are impacted by the mandate must provide sick leave for workers to recover from any side effects from the vaccine. 

Who will pay for weekly testing for the unvaccinated? 

Employers aren't required by OSHA to pay for weekly COVID-19 tests for unvaccinated workers, which means that some employees may end up on the hook for test costs. 

Generally, test kits cost $10 to $15, which means that an unvaccinated worker could face more than $500 in annual costs to pay for their own testing.

However, OSHA noted that some businesses may be required to pay for weekly tests due to local or state laws, as well as through collective bargaining agreements. 

How will OSHA check on compliance?

Businesses must maintain records on workers' vaccination statuses. But for workplaces where employees aren't required to be vaccinated, workers will need to get weekly tests and wear masks. 

OSHA said that it will check on compliance with the latter by doing spot-checks of businesses, and will also rely on complaints the agency receives about businesses that aren't following the mandate.

“We will have our staff available and responsive to complaints, which is a No. 1 way we hear about problems in a workplace,” Frederick said.

What are the penalties for businesses that don't comply?

Penalties for noncompliance can be steep. OSHA will fine businesses almost $14,000 for each employee who fails to comply with the rule. But businesses that are in “willful violation” of the requirements will face additional fines of about $136,000.

“We know that the vast majority of workplaces will be in compliance,” Frederick said. “In those cases where OSHA does have to come and work with a workplace with non-compliance, we assess the situation and the gravity or severity of a citation issue.”

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