On September 9, 2021, President Biden announced a six-part plan to fight COVID-19. In spoken words, he described a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” caused by the fact that nearly 80 million Americans have not yet received a vaccination. To address the ongoing crisis, the White House is taking steps to significantly increase the number of Americans vaccinated by ensuring that vaccine needs “become dominant in the workplace.”
The plan includes immunization requirements for federal employees, federal contractors, and healthcare workers in Medicare and Medicaid-participating hospitals and other healthcare facilities. Large employers must ensure their workforce is fully vaccinated, or impose certain testing requirements and give their employees paid time off for vaccinations and vaccine side effects.
The White House will announce further steps in the coming weeks. Readers should continue to follow developments as the requirements described below may change.
Employers with 100+ employees
President Biden called on the Occupational Health and Safety Authority (OSHA) to issue a temporary emergency standard requiring large employers (with more than 100 employees) to fully vaccinate their employees or undergo weekly tests. The President also instructs OSHA to require large employers to give those workers paid time for vaccinations or related side effects. The President described this as “removing one of the last remaining obstacles” to vaccination. Employers anticipating these new requirements should think about how they will carry out the process.
However, until the standard is issued and more guidance is available, some questions are unlikely to find clear answers. For example, do employers have to compensate their employees for the weekly testing time even if they refuse to be vaccinated for reasons unrelated to an underlying health condition or religious belief that prevents vaccination? How will employers manage the process of obtaining weekly test results so that this confidential medical information is protected?
Federal executive workers and federal contractors
By order of the executive branch, the president extended vaccination requirements to all executive staff and removed the option of weekly testing with the exception of approved exceptions. The National Treasury Employees Union, one of the major unions for federal employees, has already announced that it will accept the vaccination mandate.
The president also ordered the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force to issue guidelines by September 24 on measures to be taken in the workplace to protect workers of federal entrepreneurs. This extends his previous executive order, which focused on state contractors working in federal facilities. The President summed up his position on this issue: “If you want to work with the federal government and do business with us, get vaccinated.”
Health workers in Medicare and Medicaid participating hospitals and other health care facilities
The federal government is currently requiring vaccination of nursing home workers treating Medicare and Medicaid patients. Driven by what the president called a “simple, straightforward” belief that those seeking health care should trust that those treating them are vaccinated, the new plan extends the existing regime to include workers in hospitals, home health care facilities and dialysis facilities, outpatient surgical facilities, and other medical facilities that are reimbursed by Medicare or Medicaid. These requirements apply to approximately 50,000 providers and will create a more consistent standard in healthcare across the country.
Other elements of the COVID-19 plan
The COVID-19 plan includes several other elements that might be of interest to employers, including a request to large entertainment venues such as sports arenas and concert halls to vaccinate their guests or submit a negative test for entry.
The plan also provides for measures related to schools, including requiring teachers and staff in the early start and early start programs to be vaccinated. The president urged governors to require vaccination for all teachers and staff, noting that even an unvaccinated teacher can result in dozens of sick school children. Currently, only nine states (plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico) have vaccination requirements for K-12 school staff.
The plan also aims to improve care for those infected with COVID-19 by increasing support for congested hospitals. The Department of Defense will double the number of clinic teams it has deployed to help hospitals fight a surge in COVID-19 cases.
Finally, the president appealed to the country’s general practitioners, pediatricians, and general practitioners to reach out to their unvaccinated patients and encourage them to vaccinate.