Business groups split over Biden vaccine-or-test mandate

Coronavirus vaccine getting put into arm
Associated Press - Lynne Sladky

Business interests are divided over President Biden’s vaccine-or-test mandate, with some groups applauding pro-business changes to the final rule and others arguing that it will disrupt the holiday shopping season.

The rule, issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on Thursday, will require businesses with 100 or more employees to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations or weekly testing by Jan. 4.

Large corporations and their trade groups aggressively lobbied administration officials to influence the final rule. OSHA’s decision to exempt remote workers from the mandate, delay its implementation until next year and leave the cost of testing to workers, not employers, are wins for business groups.

“OSHA made some significant adjustments in the [rule] that reflect concerns raised by the business community,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest corporate lobbying group, said in a statement Thursday.

The HR Policy Association, which represents hundreds of large employers, said Thursday that it is “encouraged by the compliance flexibility given to employers” in the final rule, which will cover around 84 million workers.

Other groups, particularly retailers, are less positive, stating that the requirements will impede the upcoming holiday shopping season that is already being ravaged by supply chain issues and workforce shortages.

The Retail Industry Leaders Association, which is backed by retail giants such as Target and CVS Health, lamented Thursday that the rule will go into effect in 60 days rather than the 90 days it had requested.  

“While the mandate on private employers technically begins post-holiday, the planning time to design and implement the mandate will fall during the busiest part of the shopping season,” Michael Hanson, the group’s senior executive vice president, said in a statement.

Hanson added that fines for employers that don’t comply with the rule — which range from $13,653 for a single violation to $136,532 for willful violations — are “unnecessary and unhelpful.”

David French, senior vice president for government relations at the National Retail Federation, called the requirement “burdensome” and said that retailers have already made their own efforts to get employees vaccinated.

“It is critical that the rule not cause unnecessary disruption to the economy, exacerbate the preexisting workforce shortage or saddle retailers, who are already taking considerable steps to keep their employees and customers safe, with needless additional requirements and regulatory burdens,” French said in a statement.

Business groups say that the nationwide shortage of COVID-19 tests could disrupt the rule’s implementation. The U.S. does not have enough in-home and rapid tests, and demand for tests will almost certainly increase when the OSHA mandate goes into effect.

Large companies are also concerned by the prospect of unvaccinated workers leaving for smaller employers or becoming part-time contractors to dodge the vaccine-or-test mandate. They say they cannot afford to lose more workers with more than 10 million jobs still unfilled.

President Biden pushed back on those fears Thursday, stating that when they are required to get the shot, “the overwhelming majority of Americans choose to get vaccinated.”

“There have been no ‘mass firings’ and worker shortages because of vaccination requirements,” Biden said in a statement. “Despite what some predicted and falsely assert, vaccination requirements have broad public support.”

Biden officials said this week that the OSHA rule alone will save thousands of lives and prevent more than 250,000 hospitalizations during its first six months. The U.S. has reported more than 750,000 deaths due to COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic.

Parts of the mandate will go into effect next month. The rule requires all unvaccinated workers to begin wearing masks indoors by Dec. 5. That’s also the deadline for companies to provide paid time off for employees to get vaccinated and recover from side effects.

Under the rule, employers are not required to pay for tests or masks, unless a collective bargaining agreement or state or local laws compel them to. That stipulation has sparked criticism from pro-worker groups.

“Pushing these costs onto workers is wrong-headed and an unprecedented departure from all previous OSHA standards,” said Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, which advocates for better working conditions.

“Employers, who have a responsibility to provide a safe workplace, have always been required to pay the costs of tests and screening for occupational illnesses and for personal protective equipment; this case should be no different,” she added.

The Biden administration also announced Thursday that the vaccine mandate deadline for federal contractors will be delayed to Jan 4. to align with the OSHA rule. That’s a relief for trucking companies, airlines and other firms that said they wouldn’t be able to meet the original Dec. 8 deadline to get workers vaccinated.

The delay drew praise from prominent business groups such as the Business Roundtable, which represents CEOs of the nation’s largest companies, including government contractors such as Raytheon Technologies and American Airlines.

“Implementation is a critically important issue, and we have called on OMB to provide necessary flexibility for companies to comply, taking into account employee retention issues, supply chain challenges heading into the upcoming holiday season and the complexities involved for many companies that must comply with both the federal contractor EO and the OSHA [rule],” the Business Roundtable said in a statement.


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