By DAVID KOENIG
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 are the Biden administration’s boldest move to date to persuade reluctant Americans to finally get a vaccine that has been widely available for months – or potentially face financial consequences. If successful, administration officials believe it will go a long way in ending a pandemic that has killed more than 750,000 Americans.
First scheduled by President Joe Biden in September, the requirements will apply to around 84 million workers in medium and large companies, although it is not clear how many of those employees are unvaccinated.
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.
OSHA has left open the possibility of extending the requirement to small businesses. He asked the public whether employers with less than 100 employees could manage vaccination or screening programs.
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.
The requirements will not apply to people who work at home or outside.
Biden presented the problem as a simple choice between getting more people vaccinated or prolonging the pandemic.
“While I would have much preferred that the requirements not become necessary, too many people remain unvaccinated for us to be able to come out of this pandemic for good,” he said in a statement on Thursday.
Biden said his encouragement for companies to impose warrants and his own previous demands on the military and federal contractors had helped reduce the number of unvaccinated Americans from more than 12 from 100 million by the end of July to about 60. million now.
These measures, he said, did not lead to massive layoffs or worker shortages, adding that vaccines were previously needed to fight other diseases.
OSHA has said that companies that fail to comply with the regulations could face penalties of nearly $ 14,000 per violation.
The agency will face application challenges. Even counting state assistance, OSHA has only 1,850 inspectors to supervise 130 million workers in 8 million workplaces. An administration official said the agency would respond to whistleblower complaints and perform limited spot checks.
The publication of the rules follows weeks of regulatory review and meetings with business groups, unions and others.
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.
The rules set up potential legal battles along partisan lines between the states and the federal government. Several states and Republican governors have threatened to sue, saying the administration lacks the power to grant such broad terms under emergency authority.
OSHA’s parent agency, the Department of Labor, says it has a solid legal foundation. The department’s top legal official, Seema Nanda, said OSHA rules prevail over conflicting state laws or orders, including those that prohibit employers from requiring vaccinations, tests or face masks. .
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.
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 tests for unvaccinated workers, but they must grant paid time off for employees 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 come into effect on December 5.
Employers covered by the requirements must verify the immunization status of their workers by checking documents such as immunization cards from the CDC or records from doctors or pharmacies.
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.
A previously announced requirement for federal contractors to ensure workers are vaccinated was due to go into effect on December 8, but on Thursday the administration postponed the measure until January 4 to match the demands of other large employers and contractors. health care. Already more than a dozen states have taken legal action to block the contractors’ tenure.
For weeks, Biden urged companies not to wait for OSHA to act. He touted companies that have announced their own vaccine requirements 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 required all workers at its headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, and executives traveling to the United States to be vaccinated by October 4. workers, however.
United Airlines has demanded that 67,000 American employees get vaccinated or be laid off. Only a few hundred have refused to do so, although about 2,000 are asking for exemptions.
In August, Tyson Foods told its 120,000 U.S. workers that they needed to be vaccinated by November 1. On Thursday, the company said more than 96% of its workforce was vaccinated, including 60,500 people who were vaccinated after the August announcement.
However, some companies have expressed concern that some workers hesitant about vaccination may quit, leaving their workforce even leaner in an already tight labor market.
Several business groups, including the Business Roundtable, have endorsed the mandate. However, retail groups feared the requirement would disrupt their operations during the critical Christmas shopping period. Retailers and others have also said it could worsen 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 infections in the United States continues to decline after a summer surge 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 previous tenure on federal contractors 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.”
Associated Press Writers Paul Wiseman in Washington, Tom Krisher and Dee-Ann Durbin in Detroit, Stacey Plaisance-Jenkins in Picayune, Mississippi, and Matt OBrien in Providence, Rhode Island, contributed.