President Joe Biden’s administration on Thursday released details about its new vaccination rule for large employers, setting a Jan. 4, 2022, deadline for workers to get their shots.
Workers who choose not to get vaccinated will be required to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test on a weekly basis.
The rule, which will be enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, will apply mostly to private employers with 100 or more workers company-wide. The White House estimates that the requirement will cover 84 million workers.
Employers will have to provide paid time off for workers to get their shots.
Jim Frederick, deputy assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, said Thursday that the U.S. had made great progress on vaccinations but still had work to do.
“There are still so many workers who are not protected and remain at risk of being seriously ill or dying from COVID-19,” he said on a press call.
The new rule technically goes into effect on Friday, but it will be 30 days before certain provisions begin, including a requirement that employers enforce masking in the workplace. After 60 days, workers will have to show their vaccine cards or other documentation, or begin showing testing results.
The rule, known as a temporary emergency standard, has been in the works for months. But OSHA officials said they wanted to give employers more time to prepare, hence the Jan. 4 deadline.
Seema Nanda, the Labor Department’s solicitor, said the administration believed it was on sound legal grounds for issuing the rule. It will apply anywhere OSHA has jurisdiction, and states that run their own occupational safety and health programs will be required to implement a standard equally as strong. Many Republican states have vowed to fight the rule in courts.
“The Occupational Safety and Health Act … gives OSHA the authority to act quickly in an emergency where the agency finds workers are subjected to a grave danger and new standard is necessary to protect them,” Nanda said.
Citing the roughly 750,000 deaths from the coronavirus in the U.S., Nanda said COVID-19 “is clearly a health hazard that poses a grave danger to workers.”
Although the rule applies mostly to the private sector, government employers will be required to follow it in the states where public employees are covered by OSHA laws.
Asked why the administration limited the rule’s applicability to firms with 100 workers, Frederick said they felt large employers would have the administrative capacity to quickly implement it.
“It will reach all the largest workplaces where the worst outbreaks have occurred,” he said.
However, Nanda noted that the rule is currently going through a comment period during which the public can weigh in, and she said the administration would consider broadening the rule to cover small employers.
Employers will not be required to cover the costs of testing for workers who aren’t vaccinated. Frederick said the rule “does not preclude employers” from taking disciplinary action when workers do not get vaccinated or provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test.
The rollout of the vaccine rule drew praise from Democrats and criticism from Republicans.
Rep. Virginia Foxx (N.C.), ranking Republican on the House Committee on Education and Labor, called the emergency rule “egregious.” “Biden wants the federal government to control every aspect of American workers’ and business owners’ lives,” she said in a statement.
But Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, called the rule “common sense.”
“This workplace safety standard is an essential step toward helping workers stay safe on the job, putting us on the path to ending this pandemic, and keeping our economic recovery on track,” Murray said in a statement.
The new rule is one of the most significant in OSHA’s 50-year history. The agency is small considering its responsibilities: Federal OSHA and OSHA-approved state agencies employ fewer than 2,000 inspectors across the country, enforcing safety regulations at more than 8 million worksites. But the administration has said it is confident that OSHA can enforce the vaccine rule.
Employers will be responsible for developing their vaccine-and-testing programs and making sure workers follow them. Companies that fail to do so can be fined up to around $14,000 for “serious” violations and $137,000 for “willful or repeat” violations.
OSHA does not have adequate resources to robustly enforce the rule by carrying out random inspections all over the country. Instead, the agency is expected to target its enforcement in particular industries and investigate complaints from workers.
Frederick said most employers already follow OSHA standards that are on the books and that he suspects they will do the same for the vaccine rule, especially since many of them have spent weeks preparing for it. Those that violate workplace standards tend to be “the outliers,” he said.
“The vast majority of workplaces comply with OSHA standards,” he said.