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White House vaccine rule would require companies and workers to comply by Jan. 4

President Biden’s plan to require vaccinations at all private employers of 100 workers or more has hit a wall of opposition from Republican governors, state lawmakers, and attorneys general.Susan Walsh/Associated Press

Companies with more than 100 employees will now be mandated to require coronavirus vaccinations for their workers or do regular testing by Jan. 4 under the terms of a new federal rule released by the Biden administration.

The hotly anticipated rule, which is being implemented on an emergency basis by the Department of Labor, is one of the White House’s most strenuous attempts to increase vaccination rates across the country.

The policy is already being contested by a number of Republicans and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said on Twitter he planned to sue the federal government to block the policy, calling it an ‘’illegal, unconstitutional regulation.’’

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The new policy would require weekly testing and mandatory face-masking for workers who choose not to get vaccinated. It also specifies that employers must provide paid time off for workers to get vaccinated or recover from any side effects. But companies are able to require un-vaccinated employees to foot the bill for tests.

‘’Low-wage, hourly, and frontline workers have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic,’’ said Representative Robert C. Scott, the Virginia Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Education and Labor and has pushed for the Department of Labor to act more aggressively on workplace safety throughout the pandemic. ‘’Workplace vaccination policies will save lives, protect our economic recovery, and help us finally get things back to normal.’’

So far, 222 million Americans have received at least one dose of the vaccine, but the numbers vary widely in different parts of the country. During a surge of the virus’s delta variant in the late summer, White House officials escalated efforts to vaccinate more Americans, leading to the new emergency rule.

Coronavirus vaccines have proved successful at preventing infection and have in many cases minimized the symptoms of those who do become sick, offering what public health experts say is the best chance to lead the country out of the pandemic.

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But many Republicans have asserted that having the federal government become involved in vaccine rules amounts to an unfair government edict. A number of GOP governors and attorneys general have promised to challenge the policy in court.

‘’I don’t think they properly weighed all the risks and benefits of doing this, and are using a shotgun approach and not a scalpel when infections are dropping and vaccinations are already continuing to rise,’’ said Roger Severino, a former Trump administration official and fellow at the socially conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center. ‘’All the indicators are that the grave danger has passed, to the extent that it even existed in the workplace.’’

Labor and White House officials spent weeks hammering out the text, keeping an eye on the high likelihood of legal challenges it would face and the complexity of issues raised by a rule that will apply to hundreds of thousands of businesses. The White House estimates the policy will apply to 84 million workers across the country.

More than 70 business groups, individuals and other interested parties met with officials in the final days before the rule was released to ask questions and express concerns about things like how the requirement would effect staffing with labor shortages if people refused to comply and quit their jobs. A number of industries are already struggling to find employees, particularly in sectors like construction and trucking.

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The new policy ‘’is likely to increase compliance costs and cause regulatory burdens that will exacerbate several headwinds facing the construction industry,’’ Ben Brubeck, a vice president at Associated Builders and Contractors, said in a statement.

The rule tracks very closely to the plan announced by the White House in September, though it could be modified going forward. For example, written into the text of the 490-page rule is a hint that OSHA may explore expanding the rule in the future to cover all businesses, not just those with more than 100 employees.

‘’OSHA is confident that employers with 100 or more employees have the administrative capacity to implement the standard’s requirements promptly, but is less confident that smaller employers can do so without undue disruption,’’ it said, saying it would seek public comment on the matter.

Because of the testing option, the new White House ruling does not constitute a strict vaccine mandate. In fact, it is softer than many of the policies instituted by many private companies as well as state governments that have required vaccinations for employees. Still, the new federal ruling is expected to give companies that had hoped to institute more stringent mandates, but backed off for fear of employee opposition, more political cover to do so.

Companies that don’t comply could face the potential of $13,000 fines per violation, or $136,000 per willful violation, potentially adding hundreds of thousands of dollars or more in fines for companies that are found to be well outside of the rules.

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The release of the rule was paired with the release of a vaccine mandate for workers at facilities that participate in Medicaid or Medicare.

Those employees will be required to be fully vaccinated by Jan. 4, adding an additional 17 million workers to the requirements, at 76,000 medical facilities. Medical or religious exemptions will apply in these cases. All told, the federal government’s various vaccine requirements will apply to more than two-thirds of the workforce, officials said.