(AP) — Tens of millions of Americans who work at companies with 100 or more employees will need to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Jan. 4 or get tested for the virus weekly under government rules issued Thursday.
The new requirements are the Biden administration’s boldest move yet to persuade reluctant Americans to finally get a vaccine that has been widely available for months — or face financial consequences. If successful, administration officials believe it will go a long way toward ending a pandemic that has killed more than 750,000 Americans.
First previewed by President Biden in September, the requirements will apply to about 84 million workers at medium and large businesses, although it is not clear how many of those employees are unvaccinated.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations will force the companies to require that unvaccinated workers test negative for COVID-19 at least once a week and wear a mask while in the workplace.
OSHA left open the possibility of expanding the requirement to smaller businesses. It asked for public comment on whether employers with fewer than 100 employees could handle vaccination or testing programs.
Tougher rules will apply to another 17 million people working in nursing homes, hospitals and other facilities that receive money from Medicare and Medicaid. Those workers will not have an option for testing — they will need to be vaccinated.
Workers will be able to ask for exemptions on medical or religious grounds.
The requirements will not apply to people who work at home or outdoors.
Biden framed the issue as a simple choice between getting more people vaccinated or prolonging the pandemic.
“While I would have much preferred that requirements not become necessary, too many people remain unvaccinated for us to get out of this pandemic for good,” he said Thursday in a statement.
Biden said his encouragement for businesses to impose mandates and his own previous requirements for the military and federal contractors have helped reduce the number of unvaccinated Americans over the age of 12 from 100 million in late July to about 60 million now.
Those measures, he said, have not led to mass firings or worker shortages. He added that vaccines have been required before to fight other diseases.
OSHA said companies that fail to comply with the regulations could face penalties of nearly $14,000 per violation.
The agency will face enforcement challenges. Even counting help from states, OSHA has only 1,850 inspectors to oversee 130 million workers at 8 million workplaces. An administration official said the agency will respond to whistleblower complaints and make limited spot checks.
The release of the rules followed weeks of regulatory review and meetings with business groups, labor unions and others. OSHA drafted them under emergency authority meant to protect workers from an imminent health hazard. The agency estimated that the vaccine mandate will save the lives of over 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 states and the federal government. Several states have threatened to sue, contending that the administration lacks the power to make such sweeping mandates under emergency authority.
OSHA’s parent agency, the Labor Department, said it is on sound legal footing. The department’s top legal official, Seema Nanda, said OSHA rules preempt conflicting state laws or orders, including those that bar employers from requiring vaccinations, testing or face masks.
The rules will require workers to receive either two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine by Jan. 4 or be tested weekly. Employees testing positive must be removed from the workplace. Companies won’t be required to provide or pay for tests for unvaccinated workers.