Federal contractors: Vaccine mandate could drain economy
The Biden administration’s deadline will affect millions of workers across industries
Hundreds of General Electric employees at plants in New York and South Carolina took to the streets in October to protest mandatory vaccines. As a federal contractor, the facility must ensure its employees are vaccinated or fire them under emergency public health guidelines. In Pinellas Park, Fla., on Wednesday, a handful of Lockheed Martin employees took time off to picket, demanding that they be given alternatives to vaccination. One worker of nearly two decades told a local cable news channel, Bay News 9, “I’m very afraid of losing my job, but not afraid enough to put something in me my religion stands against and that my morals stand against.”
President Joe Biden unveiled the Path Out of the Pandemic Plan on Sept. 9, a sweeping agenda to vaccinate America’s workforce. The plan initially ordered all federal employees, including contractors, to get the COVID-19 vaccine by Dec. 8, but updated guidelines released on Thursday changed the deadline to Jan. 4. The rules cover roughly 5 million contractors in companies ranging from the technology industry like Google to defense contractors like Lockheed Martin or transportation workers like the Teamsters Union. Pleas from contractors and unions gearing up for holiday rushes amid worker shortages spurred the White House to offer some leeway.
On Thursday, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published nearly 500 pages of regulations on how companies, federal employees, and federal contractors should comply with President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate. The regulations do not apply to those working from home or in outdoor jobs. OSHA stipulates that companies do not need to pay for weekly testing but must require unvaccinated employees to wear masks and produce a negative COVID-19 test week. Companies must also offer employees paid time off to get vaccinated starting Dec. 5.
Contractors who do not comply with the mandate must pay $14,000 for each infraction, with higher fees for intentional noncompliance. But OSHA itself faces an inspector shortage, with only 1,850 inspectors to oversee 130 million U.S. workers at 8 million workplaces. It has not clarified how it will enforce the mandate.
The Q&A page on the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force’s website instructs contractors to treat termination as a last resort. If employees still reject the coronavirus vaccine, the administration recommends a “limited period of counseling and education, followed by additional disciplinary measures if necessary.”
The new guidelines give companies flexibility on how they want to enforce the vaccine mandate, and as long as federal contractors show that they are working toward vaccination, they will not face hefty fines. The White House move is partially intended to prevent mass worker shortages right before the Christmas rush.
Federal contractor shortages can have far-reaching effects, especially in tech and transportation industries. Truck drivers across the country are pulling extra shifts as companies scurry to relieve supply chain bottlenecks. The American Trucking Association recently reported a shortage of 80,000 drivers due to retirements, burnouts, and fewer new hires. The ATA told the Biden administration it might drop federal contracts rather than destabilize its already-declining workforce. A company survey found the corporation could lose 37 percent of its drivers if forced to comply with the vaccine mandate. Roughly 50 percent of the ATA workforce is fully vaccinated.
“The first rule of any public health policy should be ‘do no harm.’ Unfortunately, these latest mandates and the unintended consequences they’ll create fall short of that standard,” ATA President and CEO Chris Spear said in a public statement. “[The vaccine mandate] threatens to cause further disruptions throughout the supply chain, impeding our nation’s COVID response efforts and putting the brakes on any economic revival.”
A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 37 percent of unvaccinated workers would leave their jobs if an employer required vaccination even if they were offered a testing alternative. If no testing option was available, the number increased to 72 percent.
Raytheon Technologies, one of the nation’s largest defense contractors, warned that vaccine mandates will likely strain the supply chain further and cost the company roughly 1,000 workers. But the company also reiterated that protecting employees from COVID-19 will ensure work stability in the long run. The White House has taken the same position. Coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients has argued coronavirus infections among transit workers and federal contractors stand to hurt the supply chain more than vaccine mandates do.
On Nov. 3, Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., and 40 other senators challenged Biden’s vaccine mandate. They intend to leverage the Congressional Review Act to nullify the executive rule, arguing that it constitutes a government overreach.
“President Biden is playing a game of chicken with Oklahomans’ lives and livelihoods. No one should have to choose between their job and their personal healthcare decisions,” wrote Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla.
The Biden administration faces legal attacks from state governments, as well. Nineteen states filed four lawsuits against the federal government last week. Missouri filed one on behalf of 10 Republican-led states. Georgia joined ranks with Alabama, Idaho, Kansas, South Carolina, Utah and West Virginia, while Texas and Florida submitted separate suits. Each case lambasts Biden for overreach and asks a judge to block the vaccine mandate on the grounds that it violates federal procurement law. The states also argue it strips 10th Amendment rights from state governments and violates proper procedure by skipping a 60-day public comment period.
“The Biden Administration has repeatedly expressed its disdain for Americans who choose not to get a vaccine,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said. “If the president thinks his patience is wearing thin, he is clearly underestimating the lack of patience from Texans whose rights he is infringing.”
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