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Compliance clock ticking on President Biden’s vaccine mandate for businesses. How will Utah companies react?

SHARE Compliance clock ticking on President Biden’s vaccine mandate for businesses. How will Utah companies react?
CEO Ryan Smith plays basketball with employees at Qualtrics headquarters in Orem, Utah, in February 2018.

Qualtrics CEO Ryan Smith, left, plays basketball with employees at the business in Orem on Feb. 2, 2018. Qualtrics, the Utah-based customer experience innovator, released results of a national survey on Wednesday that found 58% of employees overall support Biden’s mandates.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The much-anticipated details of President Joe Biden’s sweeping get-vaccinated-or-get-tested mandates, announced in September, went public Thursday morning, and the clock is now ticking for larger businesses in Utah and across the country to comply with the new rules or face stiff fines.

The changes impact over 80 million employees, about two-thirds of the total U.S. workforce.

While the administration argues implementing the rules is a necessary strategy to help curb the spread of COVID-19, many Republican elected officials oppose the policy.

At the individual level, national surveys reflect widespread support for the new mandates, but Utahns weighed in heavily against them in a recent Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll.

Once the new requirements are enrolled in the Federal Register, private sector companies with 100 or more employees will officially face a Jan. 4 deadline to ensure employees have either been vaccinated for the COVID-19 or test negative at least once a week for the virus. New stipulations also require nonvaccinated employees to wear masks while at work.

Employers must pay workers for the time they take off to get vaccinated and provide sick leave for employees to recover from any side effects of immunization. But employers are not required to pay for testing of employees who choose the weekly test option. Workers will be able to ask for exemptions on medical or religious grounds.

Companies who fail to follow the new rules could face penalties from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration of up to $13,653 per violation. In a White House press briefing Thursday morning, a senior administration official also noted that “willful penalties” could rise as high as $136,532.

Tougher rules will apply to another 17 million people who work in nursing homes, hospitals and other facilities that receive money from Medicare and Medicaid. Those workers will not have an option for testing — they will need to be vaccinated, according to the rule.

Biden framed the issue as a simple choice between getting more people vaccinated or prolonging the pandemic.

“While I would have much preferred that requirements not become necessary, too many people remain unvaccinated for us to get out of this pandemic for good,” he said Thursday in a statement.

Biden said his encouragement for businesses to impose mandates and his own previous requirements for the military and federal contractors have helped reduce the number of unvaccinated Americans over age 12 from 100 million in late July to about 60 million now.

Those measures, he said, have not led to mass firings or worker shortages, adding that vaccines have been required before to fight other diseases.

Utah-based customer experience innovator Qualtrics released results of a national survey on Wednesday that found 58% of employees overall support Biden’s mandates. But 75% of currently unvaccinated employees would consider leaving their jobs when mandates go into effect and over a third, 35%, say they are afraid of being terminated by current employers if they refuse to comply with the vaccine-or-test requirements.

Other results from the survey include:

  • Fifty-five percent of employees said they will consider reporting a co-worker to OSHA for violating a vaccine mandate.
  • Thirty-one percent of employees don’t think their company will actively enforce federal vaccine requirements.
  • Forty-nine percent of people are confident that the federal government will effectively enforce a vaccine requirement for private businesses while 23% are not confident at all.
  • Fifty-eight percent of employees support the executive order mandating vaccinations in the workplace.

Sydney Heimbrock, Qualtrics’ chief industry adviser for government, said the details released Thursday allow companies to move forward to implement compliance plans.

“The time to watch and wait on vaccine mandates is over,” Heimbrock said in a statement. “The Biden administration has started the clock — and now it’s up to company leaders to quickly implement the new standards with as little disruption as possible. Since the initial announcement in September, employers were left with some degree of uncertainty as to what the new orders might mean for their workforce.

“With OSHA’s published standards, everyone now has the clarity they need to clearly communicate expectations and create processes that employees can easily understand and comply with. After almost two years of adjusting to this shape-shifting pandemic, employees deserve a swift response and a clear path forward.”

Heimbrock added the politically charged issue will require companies to embrace a higher degree of sensitivity and thoughtfulness as they put the new rules in place.

“Vaccine mandates are politically polarizing and have become an emotional issue for employees and their families,” he said. “That’s why, leading with empathy will be key to creating the environment of trust and mutual understanding we need to successfully navigate this new workplace challenge.”

It was unclear how OSHA planned to enforce the rules. Even counting allied regulators at the state level, the agency has only 1,850 inspectors to oversee 130 million workers at 8 million workplaces. A senior administration official said OSHA will target companies if it gets complaints.

The release of the rules followed weeks of regulatory review and meetings with business groups, labor unions and others. The regulations form the cornerstone of Biden’s most aggressive effort yet to combat the spread of COVID-19, which has killed more than 740,000 people in the U.S.

Once enrolled, a process that should be completed this week, Biden’s vaccination plan is expected to face immediate legal challenges.

In September, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes and 23 other state attorneys general sent a letter to Biden urging him to reconsider the “unlawful and harmful” vaccine mandate plan or face a legal backlash.

“Your plan is disastrous and counterproductive,” the letter reads. “From a policy perspective, this edict is unlikely to win hearts and minds — it will simply drive further skepticism.

“And at least some Americans will simply leave the job market instead of complying. This will further strain an already-too-tight labor market, burdening companies and (therefore) threatening the jobs of even those who have received vaccines.”

Following release of the letter, Reyes said he believes his stance reflects the will of most Utahns.

“Both employers and employees in Utah, with unprecedented fervor, have flooded my office with messages of dire concern and extreme opposition to the proposed mandate,” Reyes said in a statement last week. “I firmly agree.”

On Thursday, Reyes’ office said legal action is awaiting official enrollment of the mandates.

The Salt Lake Chamber, whose members represent a wide range of business types across the state, cited its work to encourage Utah employees and their families to get vaccinated but also noted concerns about government overreach in a statement released in September, following Biden’s announcement.

“As a business association the chamber is always concerned about government mandates that reach into employers’ operations and employees’ private lives,” the chamber statement read. “We are also concerned about issues of legal uncertainty, employer liability, employees potentially leaving an already constrained workforce, and the risk of deepening political divisiveness surrounding vaccination.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said it was happy to see some of the concerns it raised following Biden’s announcement of the mandate plan were reflected in the details released on Thursday.

“The chamber believes that the widespread vaccinations is the key to beating COVID, and we are proud of the work of the business community in the effort to help Americans get vaccinated,” said a chamber spokesperson in a statement. “OSHA made some significant adjustments in the ETS that reflect concerns raised by the business community. The chamber is focused on helping our members ensure that their employees are vaccinated and communicating to OSHA operational and implementation issues employers have with the requirements of the ETS.”

Contributing: Associated Press