Nearly 100 million U.S. workers will be required to get the COVID vaccine by Jan. 4, with some workers allowed to test weekly instead, under sweeping federal rules released Thursday by the Biden administration that identifies COVID-19 as an occupational hazard.
The regulations are aimed at health care workers and businesses with 100 or more employees, covering two-thirds of the nation’s workforce. Businesses that don’t comply could be fined $14,000 per infraction, and hospitals could lose access to Medicare and Medicaid dollars.
It’s part of President Joe Biden’s aggressive new plan to try quell a pandemic that’s overshadowed his presidency and hobbled the economy. At the same time, the Jan. 4 date is a nod to industry groups that insisted the administration wait until after the holidays to impose mandates in the midst of a worker shortage.
"This is good for the economy," a senior administration official told reporters late Wednesday on the rationale for the plan.
Since taking office, the Biden administration had avoided imposing nationwide vaccine mandates, focusing instead on incentives for businesses and individuals. But with the arrival of the delta variant, a surge in pediatric cases and pockets of the country remaining hesitant to get a shot, Biden’s COVID strategy shifted in recent weeks.
"We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin. And your refusal has cost all of us," Biden said of unvaccinated Americans on Sept. 9 when announcing his plan to draft the rule.
Biden’s plan also gives federal contractors an extra month to comply, sliding a previous Dec. 8 deadline set by the administration. Federal workers are still required to be vaccinated by Nov. 22.
Like health care workers, federal contractors and federal workers aren’t given the option to test instead of getting vaccinated. In other businesses, employees could be given the option to test weekly and would be required to wear a mask in the workplace.
When asked whether the worker shortage was a factor in the decision, administration officials said the primary focus was on making compliance easier for workers and aligning deadlines across the private sector.
Once divided on how to address the pandemic, Republican governors have united against the plan, insisting it represents dangerous federal overreach and would cripple business owners already dealing with worker shortages.
"Rest assured, we will fight them to the gates of hell to protect the liberty and livelihood of every South Carolinian," tweeted the South Carolina GOP Gov. Henry McMaster last September following Biden's announcement.
Supporters counter that many large businesses have already embraced vaccine mandates to both entice employees who want a safe workplace and end a pandemic that has hobbled the economy. They argue too that whenever employers have enacted mandates, the vast majority of workers comply.