Nation/World

Biden’s new rules on vaccine and testing met with support and criticism as COVID drags on economy

WASHINGTON - The Biden administration’s far-reaching announcement mandating coronavirus vaccines or rigorous testing for larger businesses prompted a mix of critical and supportive responses from companies, employers and corporate advocacy groups.

The White House is compelling businesses with more than 100 employees to require their workers be vaccinated against the novel coronavirus or subjected to weekly testing. Companies that ignore the policy could face penalties of up to $14,000 for each violation, according to a senior administration official. Also, companies would be required to give workers paid time off to get the vaccine.

The employer mandates, which the White House estimates could reach as many as 80 million people, or two-thirds of U.S. workers, would be the most extensive government intervention into private companies and employer practices since the pandemic began.

While some companies, like McDonald’s, Delta Air Lines and Tyson Foods, have already moved to mandate vaccination or regular testing in their U.S. workforces and offices, the new federal rules threaten to escalate tensions in office work places, where some workers have already been arguing about masks and testing rules. In the backdrop, the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus has sent cases surging to more than 150,000 new ones a day, mostly among unvaccinated, while also weighing on the economy.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents thousands of businesses affected by the measure, released a muted statement that did not flag immediate opposition to the mandates. Neil Bradley, executive vice president and chief policy officer at the Chamber of Commerce, said “the Chamber will carefully review the details of the executive orders and associated regulations.”

In a statement Thursday, Business Roundtable President Joshua Bolten said the group, which represents chief executives from some of the largest companies, including Chevron, Caterpillar and Citigroup, “welcomes the Biden administration’s continued vigilance in the fight against covid.” Bolten added that “America’s business leaders know how critical vaccination and testing are,” which is why many are encouraging customers and employees to get vaccinated and providing paid time off.

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Jennifer Myers, a spokeswoman for the American Hotel and Lodging Association, said the organization and “our members are in the process of reviewing the President’s new guidance and as always we encourage all Americans get vaccinated.”

Amazon officials praised the White House’s announcement, which included a deal struck with Amazon, Kroger and Walmart to sell at-home coronavirus tests at cost beginning this week. (Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

“We know vaccines, coupled with widespread and convenient testing, serve as powerful tools to help slow the spread of covid-19 in our communities, keeping the U.S. economy open, and protecting America’s workforce,” said Brian Huseman, Amazon vice president of public policy. “We’re proud to work with the Biden administration to increase access to affordable, high-quality, FDA-authorized tests, to keep us moving toward a full recovery.”

Yet the National Federation of Independent Business flagged concerns about the rules. In a statement, Vice President of Federal Government Relations Kevin Kuhlman said small businesses are already up against daily challenges from pandemic requirements, locating qualified workers, rising inflation and supply chain disruptions.

“Small business owners and their employees want to operate in a safe and healthy manner that allows them to stay open. Additional mandates, enforcement, and penalties will further threaten the fragile small business recovery,” Kuhlman said.

Other local business groups also said they were worried about the mandate. Rick Murray, chairman of the government affairs committee at the Arizona Small Business Association, said “this is really as far reaching as government can get.” He said he was “shocked” that the administration would announce such forceful rules and expected pushback from the organization’s members.

“That’s really a free-enterprise decision that should be made by companies, and not the government,” Murray said.

One company chief executive said he was relieved to hear about the vaccine mandate, which reinforces what he’s been trying to do. Jay Foreman, president and chief executive of Basic Fun! Toys, said that his company already had a policy that resembled the White House’s new rules. Foreman has about 160 employees around the world, roughly 100 of whom are in the United States.

Foreman said he’d been hesitant to install a blanket vaccine mandate. So a few weeks ago, the company announced it would require weekly testing for people who were unvaccinated, and that testing would be provided in the office.

An unvaccinated employee was vehemently opposed and “blew a gasket in the office,” Foreman said. The employee acted out to such a degree that he had to be escorted out of the building and was terminated “on the spot,” Foreman said.

But the incident didn’t cause Foreman to change course. In addition to testing for unvaccinated employees, people who recently traveled or think they could be at risk also get a weekly tests.

“We’re in Florida and continue to be the epicenter,” Foreman said. “All of a sudden everybody knew someone who had covid.”

As some restaurants struggle to hire and retain workers during the pandemic, one major industry group said it supports vaccinations for everyone, encouraging restaurant employees to get the shots. “While we appreciate the intent of this executive order, we hope that the administration will work with us to take into consideration the unique operations of restaurants when creating the guidelines for implementation,” said Sean Kennedy, executive vice president of public affairs for the National Restaurant Association.

Other businesses that had already encouraged employees to get the shots said they would take stock of the new executive order without explicitly endorsing it. “We believe the vaccine plays a critical role in combating the virus and have already designated some roles where we require the vaccine,” Ford Motor Co. said in a statement Friday. “We will be assessing the new executive actions to determine what adjustments need to be made to our current vaccination policy as we continue to prioritize the safety of our employees.”

Some businesses that had already mandated vaccinations for U.S. employees will look to expand such requirements to its global workforce as worldwide accessibility improves. The software company Citrix announced last month that beginning Oct. 1 all employees and contractors in the United States would need to get vaccinated before entering its offices. According to its own surveys in several locations, nearly two-thirds of those who responded said that they would be more likely to work from an office if everyone inside was fully vaccinated. “Since the beginning of the global pandemic, our decisions on how and when we return to offices have been driven by a focus on our collective health and well-being, and providing a safe environment in which our employees can do their best work,” the company said in a statement Friday.

The new rule will be crafted by the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA spokeswoman Denisha Braxton confirmed the agency would be working on the vaccine mandate and testing rules. She added that companies would be required to give paid time off for workers feeling under the weather after their vaccination, in addition to paid time off for getting the vaccine.

That agency has been under fire by labor advocates and workplace safety experts who have been clamoring for stronger workplace safety mandates since the beginning of the pandemic.

The Trump administration declined to do so. The Biden administration has mostly opted for a limited workplace safety rule to apply mostly to workers at medical facilities. This new vaccine mandate would be the first far-reaching pandemic-era regulation for that division.

Labor advocate say that the new OSHA rule could provide political cover for some companies that had wanted to issue a vaccine mandate but had shied away from them, fearing blowback.

“There are very few federal agencies with the power OSHA has over workplaces, and finally the White House has recognized that OSHA can and should play a central role in stemming this pandemic,” said David Michaels, an epidemiologist and professor at George Washington University who headed OSHA under President Barack Obama. “The law says employers must provide a safe workplace and requiring vaccination or testing is certainly one component of that.”

Several union groups signaled support for the new White House mandates. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the union stood in “complete support of this plan and of the administration’s effort to protect as many people as possible.”

Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, said in a tweet that she was glad the mandate would require paid time off for workers to get vaccinated. “Vaccines are the most effective way to protect essential workers - but workers need adequate paid time off, protective equipment, pandemic pay and equitable access,” she wrote.

The rise of the delta variant and ongoing resistance to vaccinations have complicated the administration’s efforts to end the health crisis and bolster the economy.

Already, the surging delta variant is pulling back on the recovery. The economy added only 235,000 jobs in August as cases spread, far short of expectations. This week, a snapshot of economic conditions tracked by the Federal Reserve said a “deceleration” in economic activity was largely tied to fewer people eating out or traveling, reflecting concerns around the spread of the delta variant.

Jordan Barab, another former OSHA official under Obama, said that mandatory vaccinations have always been controversial for the agency. For example, the agency shied away from issuing a hepatitis B vaccine mandate for workers who regularly come into contact with blood at work. Instead the agency issued a requirement that companies make the vaccines available to those workers, after much debate, he said.

Barab said he thought Biden’s vaccine rules were a good start, but he also said he wondered why it didn’t include other safety specifications, such as requirements about masking and ventilation. It was not immediately clear whether the standard would require companies to notify workers in the event of exposure or outbreaks - another issue that labor advocates have been pushing for more than a year.

“If you’re going to bite the bullet on vaccines - why not do a mask mandate, which would basically be a national mandate,” he said. “Every business would have to enforce it. You’d have universal masking.”

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The Washington Post’s Jay Greene and Jeff Stein contributed to this report.

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