President Joe Biden on Thursday announced sweeping vaccination and testing requirements for federal government workers, contractors and even private sector employees, as his administration works to fight the spreading coronavirus.
All federal workers and contractors will need to get fully vaccinated in the coming weeks, as will health care workers at providers that receive federal funding through Medicaid and Medicare. The administration will also require all businesses with 100 or more employees to require testing at least once a week for unvaccinated workers.
The directives represent a significant step in pushing the private sector, an area where the president has been hesitant to use federal powers too heavily.
These new standards are part of Biden’s six-part plan to respond to yet another surge in COVID-19 cases, which he is set to announce Thursday. The plan is largely focused on increasing the rate of vaccinations in the United States among eligible populations.
About 75% of Americans have gotten at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine. The U.S. was quicker than other industrialized countries to get people vaccinated in early months, but vaccination rates have slowed significantly, putting the nation behind most of Western Europe and Scandinavia.
The more transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus has led to a spike in hospitalizations and deaths as a wave of infections has spread primarily through unvaccinated populations.
“This is the pandemic of the unvaccinated,” one senior administration official said Thursday. “But with the unvaccinated filling our hospitals and putting our kids and economy at risk, their actions are affecting us all.”
The administration has been slow to adopt vaccination mandates, but it has been increasingly willing to implement such policies as death tolls go up, including requirements around nursing homes and the military.
In the coming weeks, the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has overseen compliance with federal COVID-19 safety regulations, will require companies with 100 or more workers to either mandate vaccination or require unvaccinated workers to test negative for COVID-19 on at least a weekly basis before coming into work.
The administration says the rule will affect 80 million workers in the private sector. OSHA will also require large employers to provide paid time off for workers to get vaccinated.
Biden has also signed an executive order mandating vaccines for the millions of workers who are employed with the federal government’s executive branch — meaning all federal agencies — or who contract with the federal government.
“It’s simple: If you want to work for the federal government, you must be vaccinated, and if you want to do business with the government, you must vaccinate your workforce,” the administration official said.
And lastly, the new vaccine mandate will extend to workers at health care providers that participate with Medicare and Medicaid, the federal health insurance systems that cover seniors and low-income Americans. It will apply to roughly 50,000 health care providers nationwide, and cover more than 17 million health care workers.
The administration said the mandates will have some religious and medical exemptions.
Companies that fail to comply with these rules will face fines. By statute, OSHA fines are quite small: $13,653 for a “serious” violation. But the agency can cite multiple health or safety failures when it wants to beef up penalties, or it can issue fines for “willful” violations, which each come with a higher price of $136,532.
Democrats and the Biden administration have been floating ways to make those penalties more severe.
Individual federal workers and contractors who do not comply with the vaccine mandates will go through agency-based counseling and disciplinary action.
The Biden administration is also continuing to pursue a booster vaccine regimen for those who already did get their shots, starting this month with high-risk Americans.
These new rules come as the administration struggles to find a way out of the pandemic. The optimism that rang at the beginning of Biden’s term — as vaccination rates and job numbers rose and COVID-19 case numbers shrunk — has been crushed by the delta variant.
Concern has also grown about kids, who are increasingly susceptible to the new variants of the virus. Kids under the age of 12 are not eligible for vaccination. For now, the administration is advocating for all parents and school workers to get a shot; it will also require staff of Head Start programs, federally operated schools, to be vaccinated.
Meanwhile, the administration has continued to face major opposition in many states. The vast majority of them are run by Republicans who continue to push against mask and vaccination mandates, or who even support conspiracy theories about the vaccine. (Three states — Montana, North Dakota and Florida — have banned mandates related to COVID-19.)
These new rules will surely be met with an onslaught of litigation. Federal workers and contractors in some states have already pushed back against vaccine mandates by filing lawsuits against their employers.