October 20, 2021

White House Unveils Sweeping New Vaccine Mandates for Employers

Stephen Massey
Managing Director, Health Action Alliance

Yesterday's White House announcement has broad implications for employers. We have questions, answers, and advice to help you plan.

Yesterday afternoon, the Biden administration announced a new plan that obligates all employers with more than 100 workers to require vaccination or weekly testing for COVID-19. These employers will also be required to offer workers paid time off for vaccination and recovery from possible side effects. The plan leans heavily on the private sector to urge millions more Americans to get vaccinated for COVID-19.

President Biden also announced yesterday that COVID-19 vaccines will be required for roughly 17 million healthcare workers in facilities that receive Medicare and Medicaid funding, and for federal contractors and most federal employees. For these workers, weekly testing will no longer qualify as a substitute for vaccination.

All told, the new actions will cover 2 of every 3 American workers.

The vaccine requirements for employers with100 or more workers will be part of a new emergency rule currently being developed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which could carry penalties of up to $14,000 per violation. Full details are expected from OSHA in the coming days.

What this means for employers.

Even before yesterday’s announcement, many employers were considering ways to strengthen their vaccine policies, according to recent surveys of both large firms and small businesses. Some business owners welcomed the news, arguing that government mandates "take the heat off" of them. In all cases, mandating vaccinations for workers requires thoughtful planning and communication. Here are three essential steps:

1. GATHER EMPLOYEE FEEDBACK. Use surveys or focus groups to hear directly from employees, and be sure to engage workers representing communities that have been most affected by COVID-19. You may find strong backing for vaccination requirements: already, three-quarters of adults have received at least one vaccine dose, and according to a recent AP poll, half of all workers now support vaccine requirements, compared to only 26% who oppose. Listening to your employees will also give your company a better idea of what to expect and how to address any challenges or access concerns. 

2. PLAN AHEAD. Employers implementing vaccine requirements will need to answer a number of logistical and equity questions: 

  • How much time will you give workers to get vaccinated? As an example, federal workers and contractors will have 75 days to get vaccinated. OSHA will likely set a deadline for private-sector workers covered under its new rule.

  • How will you verify vaccination status? Federal law permits employers to require proof of vaccination, including copies of vaccination cards. All information about vaccination status must be kept confidential and stored separately from employee personnel files. 

  • Who will cover the cost of testing? The Biden administration’s new plan calls for increased testing capacity. This includes producing more rapid tests, providing 25 million free at-home rapid tests to vulnerable populations, and selling at-home rapid tests at cost via brick-and-mortar and online retailers like Walmart, Amazon and Kroger. If employers decide to cover the cost of testing, it may not be realistic to do so indefinitely. Employers should also consider what to do if sudden demand makes tests unavailable — all of these questions may be another reason to consider a full vaccination requirement.

  • Can you increase equity by helping address logistical and financial barriers faced by some employees? Employers are encouraged to provide paid time off for vaccinations and recovery from possible side effects — which the Department of Labor will now require for employers of 100+ workers. Employers should also consider organizing on-site vaccine clinics for workers and their families, even during late shifts, or offer free or discounted childcare or transportation to a vaccination site.

  • What is your process for non-compliance? Again, using the example of federal workers, employees who do not meet vaccination requirements will first be counseled to get the vaccine, then could face discipline up to termination. The stricter your requirements, the more important it is to emphasize equity early on, by speaking to employees representing communities affected by COVID-19 and removing barriers to vaccination.

  • Who in your company will handle terminations if necessary? How can you backfill those positions or those of staff who resign? Given current labor shortages, businesses will need to be thoughtful about the potential impact of any new rules on productivity and output.

3. OFFER A COMPELLING RATIONALE that reinforces your commitment to health and safety. When Delta Air Lines announced a $200 monthly healthcare premium surcharge on unvaccinated employees, CEO Ed Bastian told employees that the average COVID-19 hospital stay was costing the company $50,000. (For your company, the lost productivity from mandatory quarantines or long illnesses might also be useful examples.) Bastian also reminded his employees of all the ways Delta has prioritized clean and safe work environments, and thanked those who have already driven the company’s vaccination rate to 75% — statements that cast the new measure as an extension of existing, strongly supported company safety policy.

Explaining your company’s vaccine requirements to the public and press.

Employers can expect media interest and press questions about their vaccination policies for workers and customers. Having thought through the practical questions of a vaccination policy and articulated the reasons behind the policy to your employees is excellent preparation for answering questions from the public and press. Here are a few additional considerations to help you represent your policy with confidence.

Rely on simple, straightforward messages. 

  • “We want to create a safe workplace and a healthier community.  We all want to turn the tide on COVID-19 so our employees, our families, our economy and our communities can thrive.  A fully vaccinated workforce creates the safest possible workplace environment for employees and customers.”
  • “Vaccines are safe and effective. Nearly 200 million Americans have received at least one shot of the vaccine. The FDA’s full approval of the first COVID-19 vaccine should reassure anyone that these vaccines are safe and they work.”
  • “This is about what’s safest for our workers and our customers. We have an obligation to keep our workers safe. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for companies, but this is what we need to do to keep our employees and community safe.”

Lean on those messages if you get tough questions.

Your safe, simple, straightforward messaging can answer almost any question that arises.

Q: Are you sure it’s legal to require your employees to get vaccinated? 

A: Yes, absolutely. Federal law supports workplace vaccination requirements. The Biden administration now requires businesses with more than 100 workers to require vaccinations or mandate weekly testing. This is about what’s safest for our workers and customers.

Q: Is it fair to require employees to get vaccinated to keep their jobs?

A: Employers have an obligation to keep their workers safe. COVID vaccines are proven to be safe and effective at keeping workers healthy. A more prudent question is whether it’s fair for employers to create unsafe workplace environments by not requiring vaccines when we know they are safe and effective [and supported by the majority of our workforce]. At the end of the day, this is about what’s safest for our workers and our customers.

Q: Why are you doing this now?

A: We want to create a safe workplace and a healthier community. The vaccines are proven to be safe and effective. And a fully vaccinated workforce creates the safest possible workplace environment for employees and customers. So, we’re requiring vaccines because we want to do what’s best for our workers and customers.

Q: Are you prepared for employees to quit rather than get vaccinated?

A: Despite all the evidence that vaccines are safe and effective, despite the financial challenges workers would be bringing on themselves, despite all of the reasons for a person’s health, their career and their families, there will be some minority of workers who will not get vaccinated. We never like to see anyone go, but we are prepared for it and we have to do what’s safest for the rest of our employees and our customers.

Make use of employee feedback and the rationale you gave your workers.

  • Tell the press or public the same compelling story you told your employees — for example, about the costs your company bears for COVID-19 hospitalizations, the number of days lost to quarantines or long-term illnesses, and the steps your company has already taken to incentivize the vaccine.
  • Tell the media anything valuable you learned from gathering employee feedback, including support for a vaccination requirement or current levels of vaccination.

Be real. Be yourself.

  • The messages in this guide are intended to be safe ground to allow you to answer questions without going too far or setting off a debate. Still, you should make them your own and feel comfortable with what you are going to say. Whatever you choose to say, own it. Presenting your workplace vaccination policy with thoughtfulness and confidence will help dispel skepticism from the press or public.
  • Share powerful stories. If you have lost employees or family workers to COVID-19, if they have expressed regret about not getting vaccinated, if you can describe the damage that the Delta surge has caused in your community, these will help create understanding and sympathy, and help your audience see you as a full person, not just an employer.

For more guidance, review our Conversation Guides for Managers and for Small Business Owners.