“Vaccinations mean fewer infections, hospitalizations and deaths, and in turn it means a stronger economy,” Biden told the business leaders. “I think everybody should join me today, and I look forward to working together to beat this pandemic to keep our economy growing.”
The requirement, which is still being developed by the Labor Department, would apply to businesses with 100 or more workers, who would need to be fully vaccinated or show a negative test result at least once a week.
Businesses that do not comply with the mandate would risk fines of up to $14,000 per violation. Companies also would be required to give workers paid time off to get vaccinated.
“The vaccine requirements work, and more companies are instituting them — even Fox News is requiring it,” Biden said. “I am not being facetious when I say that, but it’s interesting that they’ve stepped forward and done that as well.”
The meeting came as Biden looks to demonstrate that his actions have the support of some of the nation’s largest businesses — and to brush aside criticism from Republicans that the mandates are executive overreach. California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) easily defeated a recall attempt Tuesday, an effort that was spurred in large part because of his aggressive actions to curb the coronavirus. Biden has lauded Newsom’s leadership during the pandemic, as both politicians have sought to contrast Democrats’ pandemic response with that of Republicans.
“This vote is a resounding win for the approach that he and I share to beating the pandemic: strong vaccine requirements, strong steps to reopen schools safely, and strong plans to distribute real medicines — not fake treatments — to help those who get sick,” Biden said in a statement Wednesday. “The fact that voters in both traditionally Democratic and traditionally Republican parts of the state rejected the recall shows that Americans are unifying behind taking these steps to get the pandemic behind us.”
Many Republican leaders have bucked at Biden’s moves, alleging the actions are unconstitutional and levy an undue burden on businesses. Over the weekend, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) declared on Twitter that there should be “NO VACCINE MANDATES.”
But a chorus of business leaders have applauded Biden’s approach, saying it alleviates pressure on companies that wished to require vaccinations but feared the stance would drive away workers. Nearly 11 million jobs remained unfilled at the end of July, a record high according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Columbia Sportswear has had drafts for a vaccine mandate circulating through its corporate offices for months, chief executive Tim Boyle told The Washington Post. But the Portland, Ore.-based company was reluctant to take a stand on its own, lest it put some of its business “at risk,” he said.
“Now with the federal government stepping in, that’s where we really felt comfortable and immediately put out a similar message to our employees,” Boyle said.
Boyle was among the executives in attendance at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Wednesday. The group included Disney CEO Bob Chapek, Microsoft President Brad Smith and Walgreens Boots Alliance CEO Roz Brewer. Kaiser Permanente CEO Greg Adams and Madeline Bell, chief executive of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, also attended, as did William Tate, president of Louisiana State University. All have taken some steps to require vaccinations among their employees or are in the midst of implementing rules in the wake of Biden’s order.
Microsoft said last month that it would require proof of vaccination for all employees, reversing an earlier decision. The company also will require vaccination proof for its vendors and any guests entering its buildings in the United States.
Last week, Microsoft indefinitely postponed the return of workers to its offices. It had previously planned to begin the return on Oct. 4.
“Given the uncertainty of covid-19, we’ve decided against attempting to forecast a new date for a full reopening of our U.S. work sites in favor of opening U.S. work sites as soon as we’re able to do so safely based on public health guidance,” Microsoft Vice President Jared Spataro wrote in a blog post.
Disney and Walgreens did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Post.
Some corporations, including McDonald’s, Delta Air Lines and Tyson Foods, had already pushed though vaccination mandates in some form before Biden’s announcements last week, which also required vaccinations for federal workers and for employees at most health-care facilities that accept Medicare or Medicaid funding.
But the administration’s actions complicate an already murky picture for businesses in the age of the pandemic. Earlier this week, the trade group that represents Coca-Cola and Kellogg sent a letter to Biden with more than a dozen questions that surfaced in discussions with its members about the mandate, such as “Must an employee be fully vaccinated in order to work?” and “What is considered to be suitable documentation of a negative test result?”
“We write to request that federal agencies move quickly move quickly, anticipate challenges, promptly answer questions and partner with the private sector if we are to realize successful implementation of the administration’s COVID-19 Action Plan and achieve our shared goal of increased vaccination rates,” Geoff Freeman, CEO of the Consumer Brands Association, wrote in the letter.
Biden’s move was spawned by growing signs that the highly contagious delta variant and resistance to vaccinations are dragging out the pandemic and slowing the economic recovery.
“We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin,” Biden said last week when he announced the new vaccine requirements. “And your refusal has cost all of us.”
Nearly 200 million Americans are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 54 percent of the population.
But the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the part of the Labor Department in charge of workplace safety, is facing perhaps the biggest test of its 50-year history. The administration is under pressure to produce the emergency vaccine requirement in the coming weeks — warp speed for a bureaucratic process that can take much longer.
The emergency rule that required health-care facilities to tighten coronavirus safety procedures was released in June, for example — about six months after Biden called for the Labor Department to study the issue’s feasibility.
There are many open questions about the specifics of the order, leaving companies on tenterhooks.
Among them: How long will businesses have to comply with the mandate? Will the mandate include other workplace safety requirements — such as masking, social distancing and communication about outbreaks — to prevent workplace transmission? What requirements will there be for employers that choose to institute a mandatory testing policy instead of mandatory vaccinations for their employees, and how economically feasible will those testing protocols be?
While the White House has said the order will apply to businesses of 100 or more workers, it is not immediately clear how that will apply to businesses with franchises, such as McDonald’s, or companies that rely on gig workers.
Many companies are bracing for a flood of exemption requests from workers for religious and medical reasons and a need for more time, resources and personnel.
Labor Department officials have been relatively tight-lipped about the order as it is being drafted, a sign in part of the heated politics and legal sensitivities that surround the issue. The order is almost guaranteed to face legal challenges, though many public health experts say that it appears to be within the bounds of the agency’s legal powers.
Besides the rule passed in June, OSHA has avoided issuing “emergency” standards since the early 1980s, after a couple of high-profile defeats in the courts for standards about exposure to asbestos and benzene. The emergency protocol allows the agency to bypass the typical rulemaking process, which can take a decade or more and includes opportunities for the public to weigh in on the matter.
Eugene Scalia, who was labor secretary during the second half of the Trump administration, has said he believes OSHA should allow public comment on the new rule, telling Fox News this week that “workers and businesses have a lot of questions about how this is going to be implemented, what the exact requirements are going to be, and it would be better if the Labor Department would give people a chance to provide their input.”