The private sector typically shudders at more government regulation. But not when it comes to COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
Some local companies Friday welcomed President Biden’s new mandate that many private employers must ensure their workers are vaccinated or tested weekly, a move expected to affect about 80 million Americans, or about two-thirds of the country’s working adults.
“It’s a positive,” said Michael Sleeper, chief executive of Imperial Distributors in Worcester, which thus far has encouraged but not required its employees to be vaccinated. “It does take away the ambiguity. It’s easier for us to support something that has become a federal law and coming right from the president.”
Many questions remain over the implementation of the mandate, such as when it would go into effect and how it would be enforced. Employers are waiting for the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to formally issue a rule.
But so far, here’s what we know:
Which companies will be affected?
The rule will apply to any private sector company that employs more than 100 people. Many large white-collar employers both locally and nationally have already implemented vaccine mandates, including Google, Facebook, HubSpot, and State Street. Many hospitals and colleges in Massachusetts have also required workers be vaccinated against COVID.
The new federal mandate will likely have the most impact on massive retailers, such as CVS Health, Walmart, Stop & Shop, and TJX, and other lower-wage employers that have not yet required vaccinations for all of their workers.
How have employers reacted to the news?
Most employers want their workforces fully vaccinated but have wrestled with whether a mandate is the right approach. Companies struggling to find workers because of a tight labor market have been most reluctant to require vaccines, fearing it would put them at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to hiring and keeping workers. In many ways, the Biden order takes pressure off employers to address the matter themselves.
CVS, headquartered in Woonsocket, R.I., expressed support for vaccinations, posting a statement on its website that calls them “the most effective way to prevail over the pandemic.” CVS recently required its corporate and patient-facing clinical staff, such as pharmacists, to be vaccinated but had held off on a similar mandate for retail employees.
“We’ve been ahead of the curve when it comes to vaccinations for our employees, announcing a requirement in August that impacts many of our 300,000 colleagues. We’ll review new requirements proposed by the administration and act accordingly.”
At Imperial Distributors, Sleeper said, he expected the mandate would boost the company’s vaccination rate to about 85 percent, from its current 75 percent. Getting to 100 percent is unlikely, Sleeper said, given exemptions based on medical or religious reasons. Still, Sleeper believes the mandate will make his workplace safer.
“There will be a benefit for everyone at the end of the day,” he added.
For some, Biden’s announcement was difficult to quickly digest. Michael Mignosa, who runs the Fruit Center Marketplace in Milton and Hingham, said it is too soon to understand how the mandate will affect his nearly 200-person staff.
“We briefly discussed his morning,” he said. “It’s early, and there’s a lot to unpack.”
The rule will likely have few detractors in Boston, where this week a Boston Globe/Suffolk University poll found 72 percent of likely voters believed employers should require workers to be vaccinated. However a Gallup poll conducted in mid-August found that across America, support for vaccine requirements in offices and workplaces was 56 percent.
Why is Biden doing this mandate now?
To quote a phrase: “It’s the economy, stupid.” Employers sharply scaled back hiring in August as the Delta variant spooked consumers into pulling back on traveling and eating out. With the variant driving a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases, large employers have delayed office reopenings, and business confidence in Massachusetts experienced its largest drop since March 2020.
Simon Johnson, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management, said the variant is dampening economic activity in a way that is “completely unnecessary” given the availability of vaccines.
”The recovery that was strong in the spring has weakened, primarily because of the virus and how it affects people’s behavior,” he said. “The virus is bad for economic activity, and we need to bring it under control.”
Ensuring workplace safety is a vital step to pandemic recovery, said Johnson, who likened not requiring vaccines or testing to “asking people to go to work where they know people around them would be smoking.”
“Many people are concerned about going to work if they feel people around them are not vaccinated or willing to wear masks,” he said. The mandate “is going to protect employers and help them stay open.”
How will companies implement the mandate?
OSHA will issue a rule known as an “emergency temporary standard” that will take effect immediately. Companies that don’t comply could face fines of up to $14,000 per violation. The rule will include a provision that gives workers paid time off to get vaccinated or recover if they experience symptoms post-vaccination.
Christopher Feudo, a partner at law firm Foley Hoag’s labor and employment group, said the Biden order took employers by surprise. He has been fielding calls from clients on how to comply. Some companies are anticipating pushback from workers and wonder how to deal with a flood of requests for medical or religious exemptions. Other clients have concerns about testing — who pays for the testing and will it be done on the employee’s or employer’s time?
The Biden order “is going to be onerous for employers who have a lot of employees, or don’t have a competent or a well-staffed HR function,” said Feudo.
Many companies may choose a more direct route, predicted workplace culture and inclusion strategist Christie Lindor, and simply mandate vaccinations and drop the weekly testing option altogether because it would be too difficult to administer.
Enforcing a vaccine mandate will be a thorny process for many companies, she added, and managers will need to be trained on verifying vaccinations and preventing bias against the unvaccinated.
“It’s a slippery slope,” said Lindor. “If it’s not managed well, It can be a recipe for disaster culturally.”
What about the public sector?
Biden also strengthened his vaccine mandate for executive branch workers and contractors, to include all employees of any company that does business with the federal government. He also removed the option of weekly testing in lieu of vaccination.
In Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker has similarly mandated vaccines in the health care sector that affects about 166,000 workers, including those in nursing homes. He is also requiring some 42,000 employees of the state’s executive branch — from budget analysts to correction officers — to be vaccinated by mid-October, or risk being fired.
The Baker administration is currently reviewing the Biden orders and its potential impact on the Commonwealth.
“The Baker-Polito Administration agrees that the vaccines are the best tool that we have to get back to normal and is proud of Massachusetts’ nation leading vaccination effort,” spokesperson Terry MacCormack said in a statement. “Governor Baker has required all Executive Department employees to get vaccinated and encourages all employers to take similar steps.”