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.
- Between the time OSHA delivered the broad proposed ETS and the time it issued the narrow healthcare-only ETS, the CDC released groundbreaking guidance relaxing COVID-19 protocols for vaccinated individuals. OSHA’s decision to limit the ETS to just healthcare only a month later had to be influenced by that seismic shift. But since that time, in July, CDC backtracked on its guidance for vaccinated workers, causing OSHA to adjust its own guidance in that regard.
- 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.
What Happened Yesterday?
Let’s start with the President’s “Path Out of the Pandemic: POTUS COVID-19 Action Plan.” Continue reading