Biden’s vaccine mandate rule: What HR needs to know now

With the deadline in early 2022, employers won't have much time to implement their plans. Here are tips on where to start.
By: | November 4, 2021

The Biden administration on Thursday released details of its long-awaited COVID-19 vaccine mandate rule for employers, lifting looming uncertainty for organizations and demanding that HR and company leaders act quickly to ensure their workers are vaccinated.

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Employers with more than 100 employees will need to implement a COVID-19 vaccination requirement for their employees—and offer a weekly testing alternative to those who refuse or are unable to receive a vaccine—by Jan. 4, 2022, according to an emergency temporary standard issued by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Employees who are not fully vaccinated by Jan. 4 must produce a verified negative test to their employers every week. Regardless of other dates, unvaccinated workers must begin wearing a mask at work as of Dec. 5. Workers also might have to bear the cost of weekly testing. Significantly, the guidance says that employers do not have to pay for testing.

The guidance comes nearly two months after President Biden announced in September that he would require scores of private employers to mandate their workers get vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID testing—a surprising plan that raised questions for many employers around the role they had to play when it came to COVID-19 vaccines.

“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,” says Sydney Heimbrock, chief industry advisory for government at Qualtrics. “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. After almost two years of adjusting to this shape-shifting pandemic, employees deserve a swift response and a clear path forward.”

Related: 9 tips for telling workers about your new vaccine mandate

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. But the surge of the Delta variant and lackluster vaccination rates changed the course of action, spurring employers to begin requiring vaccination for employees and Biden to act more aggressively. Such companies as United Airlines, Facebook, Microsoft and Tyson Foods made announcements in recent months mandating vaccination for employees. More than half of employers already have a COVID-19 vaccine mandate or were strongly considering one, a survey from insurance broker McGriff found. The survey was conducted Sept. 1, before Biden announced his plan.

Related: These employers are requiring COVID-19 vaccines

The OSHA rule also mandates a strategy many employers were already embracing: giving employees paid time off to get vaccinated and recover from the shots. Starting Dec. 5, the vaccine rule will require employers affected by the rule to provide workers with paid time off to receive vaccinations, as well as sick leave to recover from vaccination side effects that preclude working.

Although COVID-19 vaccines mandates have become polarizing and hotly contested across the country, some experts have contended that there simply is no way around them, especially when it comes to safely bringing employees back into workplaces. “Unvaccinated employees represent both a clinical and a business risk for companies,” Dr. Jeff Levin-Scherz, population health leader at Willis Towers Watson, told HRE recently.

Both employees and employers are also increasingly in favor of mandates. A recent survey from Qualtrics found that 60% of employees support vaccine requirements for in-person work, while a study released by Mercer revealed that nearly 65% of surveyed employees would prefer their employer implement a vaccine mandate. A survey from the Committee for Economic Development of the Conference Board finds that nearly two-thirds of business leaders support Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine-or-test mandate for private companies. Forty-two percent of those surveyed said they “strongly agree” with Biden’s mandate, while 24% “strongly disagree.”

Related: Vaccine mandates are growing. Here’s how employees feel

Employers will have no time to waste on setting up their policies after the new guidance. While employers knew the ruling was coming, many company leaders were waiting on the guidance before implementing a plan. Several business groups had also called for the administration to delay the mandate until after the holiday season, concerned that workers would quit rather than get vaccinated in a hot job market. But many experts have said—and research has found—that concerns about the talent flight risk are overblown for vaccine mandates.

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“There’s going to be some people that quit. But if you look at a lot of the places that have put [vaccine mandates] in place,” turnover is “not that significant,” says Brian Kropp, chief of research in the Gartner HR practice.

In setting up their vaccine mandates, employers would be wise to communicate clearly and frequently about their policies, about where they stand in getting workers vaccinated, and about how employees can get their shots.

“Vaccine mandates are politically polarizing and have become an emotional issue for employees and their families,” Qualtrics’ Heimbrock says. “That’s why leading with empathy will be key to creating the environment of trust and mutual understanding we need to successfully navigate this new workplace challenge.”

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This is a breaking story. Please check back for updates.

Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s 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. She can be reached at kmayer@lrp.com.