While we have been mostly focused on the September 9th directive from President Biden to fed OSHA to issue a COVID-19 vaccination / testing emergency temporary standard, that was hardly the only major move the Administration announced on the vaccine-mandate front. This update will focus on federal contractors – companies that provide services to the federal government through direct contracts with federal agencies and through subcontracts in support of federal contracts.
Setting a “hard” vaccine mandate – “Covered Contractor Employees” must be fully vaccinated by December 8, 2021 (and thereafter before starting to work on any federal contract);
Designating a COVID-19 safety coordinator to communicate requirements to employees and non-employees at your “Covered Contractor Workplaces”; and
Ensuring all individuals at a “Covered Contractor Workplace” comply with CDC masking and distancing guidance.
For months now, since January 2021, contractors and subcontractors working in-person on federal property have already been required to provide a self-certification that they were fully vaccinated OR had received a recent negative COVID-19 test. (SeeEO 13991 – “Protecting the Federal Workforce and Requiring Mask-Wearing”). The new EO for federal contractors eliminates the “testing-out option” and expands the mandate beyond just federal properties to also cover private workplaces, or really any place at all, where an individual is working in support of a covered federal contract.
Only those unvaccinated employees who are “legally entitled to an accommodation” for medical or religious reasons may continue to be employed to work on federal contracts. There are no exceptions for people who previously were infected and recovered. Anti-body tests are not acceptable to prove vaccination status. Under limited special circumstances involving an “urgent, mission critical need”, a federal agency may allow certain individuals who are not fully vaccinated to continue working for only up to 60 days from beginning the work on a covered contract or in a covered workplace.
Another development of this federal contractor mandate is that employers must review covered employees’ official documentation to verify vaccination status (i.e., the white card or an official record from a health department database), and self-attestation is not an acceptable substitute.
On September 9, 2021, President Biden charged federal OSHA with developing a second emergency temporary standard (ETS) requiring all but small employers in all industries but healthcare to implement “soft” vaccine mandates, i.e., to require employees to either be fully vaccinated or get weekly COVID-19 testing. The President directed OSHA to include in this new ETS a requirement that these employers provide paid time for employees to get vaccinated and recover from the vaccine. The President also issued executive orders mandating federal contractors and healthcare employers implement “hard” vaccine mandates.
The push now for a broader COVID-19 ETS applicable beyond just healthcare is a step for which we have been bracing for a while now. In June, when OSHA issued its COVID-19 ETS that was limited only to the healthcare industry, the vast majority of employers dodged the bullet, but since the explosion of new cases because of the Delta variant, we began to see that bullet more as a boomerang, likely to come back around for the rest of industry. Here are five signals we picked up that OSHA was likely to revisit its decision in June to limit its COVID-19 ETS to only healthcare employers:
The rate of community transmission and COVID-19 deaths around the country has returned to the level we were experiencing in the Spring of this year when OSHA delivered to OMB a proposed ETS that was written to cover all industries. To the extent the decline in cases and deaths was a major factor in OSHA’s decision to limit the ETS to just healthcare, that factor no longer cuts in favor of a healthcare-only rule.
Since issuing the ETS for healthcare, OSHA has been under pressure from national unions and worker advocacy groups to expand the ETS to all industries, both in the form of written comments during the ETS’s post-issuance comment period and a lawsuit filed by AFL-CIO challenging OSHA’s decision to limit the ETS to just healthcare.
There has been a growing tension between the Biden Administration and certain Republican governors, particular DeSantis in Florida and Abbott in Texas, around mask and vaccine mandates. The Biden Administration could resolve that tension by issuing a specific federal OSHA regulation setting requirements for masking and vaccinations, which would likely preempt conflicting state laws.
The White House has changed its tune about strict COVID-19 protocols and vaccine mandates dramatically since the OSHA ETS was issued. The Administration’s decision to limit the ETS to healthcare only was likely at least partially politically-motivated; i.e., a broad ETS was too unpopular due to the massive decline in COVID-19 cases and deaths. However, we have started to see President Biden take politically risky moves around vaccinations; e.g., reinstituting mask recommendations for vaccinated individuals and setting a “soft” mandate for federal workers and contractors and encouraging industry to set similar mandates. If the politics of aggressive COVID-19 requirements influenced OSHA’s decision to issue a narrow rule in June, it appears the Administration has changed its political calculation in the face of the spread of the Delta variant surge.
Those were the main signals we saw that kept us up at night worried OSHA would deliver to OMB a new or amended COVID-19 ETS that would apply to all industries. But President Biden’s announcements yesterday sent the strongest signal yet that we will soon see further regulatory action from federal OSHA on the COVID-19 front. A lot of questions remain, and we expect those to be answered in time as the new rules take effect, but we wanted to share with you what we know so far, as well as our preliminary thoughts/speculation about some of those questions.
Following President Obama’s 2014 “Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces” Executive Order (EO 13673) — commonly referred to as the “Blacklisting” Executive Order by government contractors — this Spring, the Federal Acquisition Regulatory (FAR) Council in conjunction with the Department of Labor (DOL) issued proposed regulations and guidance implementing EO 13673. The companion proposals establish expansive new reporting obligations requiring disclosure of any OSHA citation issued — still just allegations — within the three years prior to bid submission, as well disclosures of all other “administrative merits determinations” issued under 13 other labor laws. The proposals then require regular bi-annual reporting of the same data throughout the life of the contract.
Although the proposals are purportedly designed to identify and prevent “irresponsible” companies from obtaining federal contracts, because they cast such a broad net, based on mere allegations of violations, the rule’s likely effect will be to significantly intensify the scrutiny to which contractors will likely be subjected (and the costs they will need to bear to comply with the rule) without accomplishing the President’s objectives of ferreting out irresponsible contractors.
Specifically, the proposed regulations would require contractors bidding on executive branch contracts with an estimated value exceeding $500,000 to disclose any OSHA citation, regardless of the status of the citation or whether the citation has yet been upheld in the administrative review process afforded employers. All OSHA citations must be reported under the proposals, even citations characterized as “OTS,” or “other-than-serious,” the characterization OSHA applies to minor paperwork violations. The disclosure requirements apply equally to citations issued under the 27 state plan programs administered by state occupational safety and health agencies such as CAL/OSHA.
In addition to the disclosures contractors must make, prime contractors also must collect the same information from every subcontractor who has a contract or bid exceeding the $500,000 threshold (with the exception of subcontractors whose contract is for commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) goods or services).
The DOL guidance indicates that contracting agencies’ “responsibility” determinations will consider most heavily only those OSHA citations (or other labor law violations) determined to be “serious, willful, repeated, or pervasive.” While this limitation may sound good, applied in the OSHA context, it provides cold comfort to responsible contractors. A review of 2009 – 2013 OSHA enforcement data shows that the vast majority of citations issued — upwards of 85 percent — are initially characterized as serious, repeat, or willful. This means that Continue reading →