Tens of millions of Americans who work in companies with 100 or more employees will need to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by January 4 or be tested weekly for the virus under government rules released Thursday.
The new requirements, which were first introduced by President Joe Biden in September, will apply to around 84 million workers in medium and large companies, although it is not clear how many of those employees are. not vaccinated.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations will require companies to require unvaccinated workers to test negative for COVID-19 at least once a week and wear a mask in the workplace.
Stricter rules will apply to an additional 17 million people who work in nursing homes, hospitals and other facilities that receive Medicare and Medicaid money. These workers will not have the opportunity to get tested – they will need to be vaccinated.
Workers will be able to request exemptions for medical or religious reasons.
OSHA has said companies that fail to comply with the regulations could face penalties of nearly $ 14,000 per violation.
It was not clear how OSHA planned to apply the rules. A senior administration official said the agency would target businesses if it received complaints.
The publication of the rules follows weeks of regulatory review and meetings with business groups, unions and others. The regulations form the cornerstone of Biden’s most aggressive effort to date to tackle the spread of COVID-19, which has killed more than 740,000 people in the United States
OSHA drafted the rules under the emergency authority to protect workers from imminent danger to health. The agency estimated that the vaccination mandate will save the lives of more than 6,500 workers and prevent more than 250,000 hospitalizations over the next six months.
Senior administration officials said the rules include conflicting state laws or orders, including those that prohibit employers from requiring vaccinations, tests or the wearing of face masks.
The administration will face an immediate challenge from Republican state officials eager to fight Biden in court and in Congress. Senate Republicans immediately started a petition to force a vote to quash the vaccine’s mandate, but with Democrats controlling the chamber, the effort is almost certain to fail.
More than two dozen Republicans serving as state attorneys general have indicated they plan to prosecute, arguing that only Congress can enact such drastic demands under emergency authority.
Last week, 19 states filed a lawsuit to end Biden’s narrower mandate that employees of federal contractors be vaccinated. The requirement was due to go into effect on December 8, but the administration said Thursday it would be postponed to January 4 to match the requirements of other large employers and healthcare providers.
The rules will require workers to either receive two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or one dose of the 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 the tests, but they must give employees paid time off to get vaccinated and sick time to recover from side effects that keep them from working. The requirements for masks and paid time off for photography will take effect on December 5.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services issued a separate rule requiring the immunization of workers at 76,000 health facilities and home care providers who receive funding from government health programs. A senior administration official said several large private health care organizations have imposed their own mandates and achieved high vaccination rates – 96% or more – without widespread resignations.
The White House sees the new requirements as a powerful tool to sort through the ranks of the tens of millions of Americans who have so far refused to be vaccinated.
For weeks, Biden has encouraged companies not to wait for the OSHA rule to take effect. He touted companies that have already announced their own vaccine mandates and urged other companies to follow their lead.
Administration officials say these efforts are paying off, with around 70% of the country’s adults now fully vaccinated.
Walmart, the country’s largest private employer, said in late July that it was demanding that all workers at its headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, as well as its managers who travel to the United States, be vaccinated against COVID-19 before October 4. But the company had shut down before demanding shots were fired on its frontline workers.
United Airlines has demanded that American employees get vaccinated or be made redundant. Only a very small number of its 67,000 workers refused to do so.
In August, Tyson Foods told its 120,000 American workers that they needed to be vaccinated by November 1. A week before that deadline, the company said 96% of its workforce was fully immunized.
However, some companies have expressed concerns that some vaccine-hesitant workers might step down, leaving their workforce even leaner in what is already a tight labor market.
Several large business groups have complained about the timing of the mandate. Retail groups feared the requirement would disrupt their operations during the critical Christmas shopping period. Retailers and others have also said it could exacerbate supply chain disruptions.
The National Retail Federation has suggested the new rules are not necessary because the mobile average number of new daily cases in the United States has fallen by more than half since September.
“Nonetheless, the Biden administration has chosen to declare an ’emergency’ and impose onerous new demands on retailers during the crucial holiday shopping season,” said David French, senior vice president of the business group.
The number of new COVID-19 infections in the United States continues to decline after a summer spike caused by the highly contagious delta variant, but the rate of decline has slowed in recent weeks. The 7-day moving average is down 6% from two weeks ago, to more than 76,000 new cases and 1,200 deaths per day.
The warrant on federal contractors has led to protests by opponents, including workers at a NASA rocket engine test site in Mississippi. Some have said they are immune because they contracted COVID-19. Others said the vaccines violated their religious beliefs and constitutional rights.
“No one should be forced to undergo medical treatment just to keep their job,” said Nyla Trumbach, engineer at the site. “There are years and years of experience and skill here, and I just want everyone watching to see what we stand to lose here if these people don’t keep their jobs.”
Dozens of groups have requested to meet with administration officials to express their concerns and objections to the likely provisions of the OSHA rule, including the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the AFL-CIO, and anti-vaccine organizations.
Associated Press editors Paul Wiseman in Washington, Stacey Plaisance-Jenkins in Picayune, Mississippi, and Matt OBrien in Providence, Rhode Island, contributed to this report.
David Koenig, The Associated Press