As President Joe Biden said Sept. 9 when announcing his ambitious, multistep “Path Out of the Pandemic” plan: “Many of us are frustrated with the nearly 80 million Americans who are still not vaccinated, even though the vaccine is safe, effective and free.”
Speaking as someone who hasn’t hugged her mom in nearly two years — and knowing how small a sacrifice that is compared to those who never got to hug their loved ones goodbye — I’d say that’s an understatement.
After 18 months of doing our part for this group-survival project, many of us are exasperated and exhausted at being repeatedly dragged back from the finish line by others peddling snake oil in lieu of science, and trampling the public good in pursuit of personal convenience and amusement.
We’re tired of trying to navigate how to politely protect ourselves from our own colleagues and bosses. We’re tired of making the impossible calculations between feeding our families and protecting them. Tired of being expected to cover, yet again, for parents who are tired of overseeing their kids’ online schooling during yet another class quarantine.
I’m tired of having nothing to offer scared workers seeking recourse against bosses who can’t be bothered with coronavirus-prevention measures. I’m tired of trying to find the words to convince bosses that letting workers feel safe at home is better for the bottom line than seeing their dutiful faces crammed around a conference table.
Even though I’m usually a fan of compromise and diplomacy, my better angels are on a long smoke break.
So it’s in that context that I was pleasantly surprised by the “masks on, gloves off” tone of the Biden administration’s plan for combating COVID-19 in U.S. workplaces.
Under the executive order, federal employers and contractors, as well as health-care providers who treat Medicare and Medicaid patients, will be required to ensure that all their employees are fully vaccinated.
In the most controversial piece of his plan, Biden has further directed the Labor Department to issue an emergency rule requiring private-sector employers with more than 100 employees to ensure that their workers are either fully vaccinated (with the usual exceptions for religious and disability reasons), or undergoing weekly testing for the coronavirus.
Biden’s plan gives teeth to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has been under fire for failing to issue and enforce coronavirus-specific safety rules to protect workers during the pandemic — especially front-line employees in health care, food supply, meatpacking, warehousing and other essential services.
Masks, physical distancing, barriers, sanitation, contact tracing and other protective measures have been largely left to the discretion of state and local governments and individual employers.
Although OSHA did implement an emergency temporary standard in June establishing rules for health-care employers, its protections for workers in other industries have been limited mainly to firmly worded recommendations.
Biden’s workplace vaccination mandate authorizes OSHA to upgrade those recommendations to requirements, although it’s not yet clear how OSHA will enforce them or whether they will withstand legal challenges.
Opponents call the mandate unconstitutional. Several governors are vowing to fight it in their states. Some businesses are concerned that requiring vaccination will make it even harder for them to hire and retain workers in the current market. Even those who generally favor the mandate are concerned about the practical details: How will everything be paid for? What about remote workers? Does it even go far enough to effectively combat the coronavirus?
Business organizations including the Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable, and the National Association of Manufacturers seem to support the mandate, perhaps because it takes a necessary but contentious decision out of business owners’ hands. A Washington Post-ABC poll found a majority of Americans support businesses requiring employees to get vaccines.
The charged reactions to the vaccine mandate remind me of a workplace legal battle from 2016, when the Obama administration tried to expand overtime eligibility for the first time since 2004 by nearly doubling the income threshold. Opponents argued it was an illegal overreach, was too burdensome on businesses, and would result in massive job cuts. Some employers took proactive steps to comply; others held out to see how the courts would react. In November 2016, a court blocked the rule from taking effect, and that seemed to be the end of it.
But in 2019, President Donald Trump’s Labor Department issued a final rule that raised the income threshold for overtime by roughly half the amount proposed by the Obama administration. It was a less drastic change, but one that even opponents of the 2016 rule seemed to agree was necessary and long overdue.
I dunno. It just kind of gives me hope that even in the most polarized and contentious times, common sense might find a way to prevail, especially with lives still at stake.