The Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for large firms will come into effect on 4 January, with the threat of hefty fines for willful violations.
Under federal rules issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Covid-19 vaccinations or weekly testing will be required for workers at private companies with 100 or more employees.
The move is part of President Joe Biden’s push to drive up vaccination rates, with similar rules for federal workers and contractors coming into effect in the coming weeks.
According to the new rules, the first deadline is 5 December, when employers must provide time off for workers to get vaccinated and ensure those who are yet to get their shots are wearing masks.
Full vaccination is required by 4 January, with fines of up to $13,653 for each serious violation, and as high as $136,532 for any employer who deliberately disregards the mandate.
The new rules will cover up to 84 million Americans and will be enforced by inspections to check for compliance.
Approximately 17 million healthcare workers at facilities participating in Medicare and Medicaid programs will also be covered by similar rules announced by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which also go into effect on 4 January.
Federal contractors were required to get vaccinated by 8 December, but that has now been pushed in line with the 4 January deadline.
“Together, these rules will cover about 100 million Americans – two-thirds of all workers in America,” the president said in a statement released by the White House on Thursday. “As we’ve seen with businesses – large and small – across all sectors of our economy, the overwhelming majority of Americans choose to get vaccinated. There have been no ‘mass firings’ and worker shortages because of vaccination requirements. Despite what some predicted and falsely assert, vaccination requirements have broad public support.”
Mr Biden added: “I’m calling on employers to act. Businesses have more power than ever before to accelerate our path out of this pandemic, save lives, and protect our economic recovery.”
The new vaccine rules will preempt any state or local laws aimed at banning vaccine mandates or other measures to limit the spread of Covid-19, being considered in states such as Texas and Florida.
OSHA has the authority to act quickly in an emergency where it believes workers are in grave danger and new regulations or standards are required to protect them.
“A virus that has killed more than 745,000 Americans, with more than 70,000 new cases per day currently, is clearly a health hazard that poses a grave danger to workers,” an official said. “The new emergency temporary standard is well within OSHA’s authority under the law and consistent with OSHA’s requirements to protect workers from health and safety hazards, including infectious diseases.”
Workers who choose to remain unvaccinated may do so under the rules, but will still be required to wear masks and submit to weekly testing.
That stipulation does not include healthcare workers who will be held to a higher standard for the safety of patients. Penalties for lack of enforcement in the healthcare sector could be monetary but may include termination from the Medicare and Medicaid programs.
Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh and White House Covid-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients wrote an op-ed for USA Today highlighting how the new rule will protect workers from the danger posed by Covid-19.
“Covid-19 continues to hold back our workforce and our economy, and it will continue to do so until more Americans are vaccinated,” they write.
“American workers deserve and expect a safe and healthy workplace. This rule covers more than 80 million workers and will have a huge impact, saving thousands of lives and preventing 250,000 workers from hospitalisation over the next six months alone.”
To date, 78.3 per cent of the US population over the age of 12 (those eligible until the age limit lowers to 5 next week) has received at least one dose of a vaccine, and 68 per cent are fully vaccinated.