5 expert takeaways from the new OSHA vaccine mandate

The Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Thursday unveiled details of the long-awaited rule following President Joe Biden’s announcement in September that he would require U.S. employers with 100 or more workers to ensure employees are either fully vaccinated for COVID-19 or tested each week for the virus. The far-reaching rule that is expected to cover some 84 million employees has extensive implications for employers, who until recently have largely stuck to carrots instead of sticks in encouraging their employees to get vaccinated. Here is what the experts say about five major implications of the rule.

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Uncertainty is over and employers now have a decision to make. Biden announced his plan requiring scores of private employers to mandate their workers get vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID testing in September–and employers have been in wait-and-see mode as they awaited specifics of the rule and deadlines. No more. With a deadline of Jan. 4, employers need to decide if they will go the mandate route for their employees or allow unvaccinated employees to test weekly. “The time to watch and wait on vaccine mandates is over,” says Sydney Heimbrock, chief industry advisor for government at Qualtrics. “The Biden administration has started the clock–and now it’s up to company leaders to quickly implement the new standards with as little disruption as possible. Since the initial announcement in September, employers were left with some degree of uncertainty as to what the new orders might mean for their workforce. With OSHA’s published standards, everyone now has the clarity they need to clearly communicate expectations and create processes that employees can easily understand and comply with.”

Vaccine mandates will grow. Although employers have the option to offer weekly testing as an alternative for employees who are not vaccinated, that option will likely require more administrative efforts than requiring vaccines, says Dr. Jeff Levin-Scherz, population health leader at consulting firm Willis Towers Watson. “I expect we’ll continue to see very high uptake of vaccines at employers with vaccine mandates and a relatively small number of employees who will leave their jobs to avoid vaccination,” he says. “Employers have played an important role in protecting their employees and the community. The majority already offer paid time off for vaccination (62%) and for adverse effects from the vaccine (59%), as will now be required by this emergency temporary standard.”

The mask mandate is essentially back. OSHA says that unvaccinated workers must begin wearing a mask at work as of Dec. 5–another major takeaway from the rule. “It essentially creates a mask mandate countrywide for large employers if employees are not vaccinated,” says Kara Govro, chief HR legal expert at Mineral, an HR consulting firm. “That’s a lot of people who probably haven’t been wearing a mask for the last year and a half.”

The testing option is a big deal. Perhaps the biggest surprise in the guidance released Thursday is that employers do not have to pay for testing, says Brian Kropp, chief of research in the Gartner HR practice. That leaves the choice up to employers if they will pay for it themselves–which perhaps could prevent their unvaccinated employees from quitting–or if they will force workers to pay for it, which may boost vaccination rates.

Related: Vaccine mandate rule is released: What HR needs to know now

Carol Morrison, senior research analyst at the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp), agrees the testing option is a big choice for employers and one to watch. “We’ll see heightened interest in whether or not employers opt to shift that testing expense to employees who choose not to be fully vaccinated and who don’t qualify for exemption,” she says. She adds that in September, i4cp found that 16% of employers said they’d pay for testing workers, and only 9% had already said that unvaccinated employees would bear that cost. However, the greatest percentage (44%) hadn’t yet decided. “If OSHA’s announcement influences employers to shift that cost burden to employees, we may see some of those workers rethinking vaccinations,” Morrison says.

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Employers must work to verify who is vaccinated and not. Importantly, employers must maintain a roster of each employee’s vaccination status and must preserve “acceptable proof of vaccination for each employee who is fully or partially vaccinated.” Although it could be an administrative burden–and may cause employers to rely on tech to help with the task– Govro says it shouldn’t be a big headache as large employers are well-adapted at keeping employee records. “Generally, employers have at least four or five or even more types of employee files,” she says. “So this is just one more thing.”

Related: How tracking tech can help with mandating vaccines

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.