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Untangling the Mess of OSHA’s Looming Vaccine Mandate

Whether you agree with vaccine mandates or not, one thing is certain: Most employers are confused by the Biden administration’s recent edict that requires companies to prove their employees are vaccinated. Among other things, the Biden administration has tasked OSHA with requiring employers with 100 or more workers to enforce the vaccination of their employees and require unvaccinated workers to submit to weekly COVID-19 testing.

The controversial rule is going through several legal challenges and it is widely expected that the Supreme Court will have the final say. In the meantime, OSHA warns employers that they have until January 10th to comply. While some employers are taking a wait-and-see approach to the court challenges, others have already mandated vaccines in their workplaces. About 46 percent of companies are implementing OSHA’s rule despite the uncertainties, according to a Gartner survey of 272 legal, compliance, and HR executives.

The risks of non-compliance with OSHA’s rule are not the only reason many employers nationwide are instituting vaccine mandates and testing rules. Several companies have required vaccination ahead of OSHA’s rule to reduce absenteeism and health care costs and, obviously, keep workers and customers safe from the virus. About 25 percent of workers surveyed by health policy think tank KFF said their employers now have a vaccine mandate, up from just nine percent in a June survey. Under OSHA’s rules, about 80 million private-sector employees would be required to get vaccinated or tested weekly.

Some employers are concerned vaccine mandates will anger their employees, lead to resignations, and hurt retention and recruitment in these already perilous ‘Great Resignation’ times. Companies have even included “no vaccine required” in job ads. But it appears that few workers are quitting or being fired because of mandates, at least for now. For example, in New York City, police union leaders warned that thousands of officers wouldn’t comply with the NYPD’s vaccine mandate. However when the November 1st deadline passed, only 34 police officers out of about 35,000 were pulled from the streets. Still, at least 4,000 other officers are awaiting decisions on applications for religious or medical exemptions.

For employers who are concerned about the burden of compliance, new software solutions make tracking vaccination status easier than ever. Instead of monitoring statuses manually through a program like Excel, these new software programs collect vaccine records, test results, and documentation all in one place and can help tremendously if faced with an OSHA audit. Many of these technologies also connect with a building’s access control systems making it nearly impossible for non-compliant employees to go around the rules.

OSHA’s rule for vaccines still faces legal uncertainty, but many companies are going ahead and planning for compliance as if it’s a sure thing. Over the past year, the courts have generally held that employer vaccine mandates are legally sound, though you should still advise your legal counsel and HR as you develop your vaccine policies. The nation’s highest court has declined to block other mandates since the start of the pandemic. For employers and facility managers, now’s the time to get ready for OSHA’s looming vaccine policies. The deadline will likely be here before you know it.

What about booster shots?

OSHA’s vaccine rule has several requirements and was issued as an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS). That means the rule didn’t go through the standard notice-and-comment period that federal regulations usually follow because OSHA sees the risk of COVID-19 to be a “grave danger.” In addition to mandating vaccinations or weekly testing, employers are required to establish a written policy on vaccines, testing, and masks, maintain records on vaccinations, provide paid time off to employees to get the vaccine, and report to OSHA if there’s a worker COVID-19 case that results in death or hospitalization.

Penalties for noncompliance can be steep. Employers that ignore the Biden administration’s rule could face citations up to $13,653 per violation, and additional penalties could be tacked on if an OSHA inspector deems the noncompliance was “willful” or “egregious.” Along with OSHA fines, an employer could get hit for violating rules regarding whistleblowers, retaliation, and lawsuits from employees. The Biden administration’s reasoning for the rule is that Americans who still refuse to get the shots will now be coerced into doing so.

As health authorities push people to get booster shots, some employers question what OSHA means by fully vaccinated. Mandating booster shots would require accommodating the six-month delay between the second and third shots, which could complicate compliance with OSHA’s rule. The Labor Department said the rule doesn’t currently mandate boosters, but that could change if the Centers for Disease Control alters its definition of fully vaccinated.

With or without OSHA’s rule, it’s generally held that employers can require workers to get COVID-19 vaccines. Even before the pandemic, it was legally feasible to mandate other vaccines, such as against influenza. There are a few legal caveats to keep in mind, though. Private businesses can require vaccination as long as they allow exceptions for medical reasons and sincerely held religious beliefs. In general, it’s easier for employers to mandate the vaccines than governments, even though government-issued vaccine mandates have been upheld by the courts before and after the pandemic. Small and large companies, including Disney, Google, and Walmart, have already mandated vaccines in their workplaces, regardless of OSHA’s upcoming rule.

A heavy recordkeeping burden

While mandating vaccines in the workplace is legally possible, carrying out the mandates is another thing entirely. James Taylor, General Manager at Sine, helped his company collect vaccination records and enforce a company-wide mandate through the help of its own software system. He said good communication about the ‘why’ of the rules helped tremendously, and the Sine software system had a built-in process for exemptions. They feared people would submit false vaccination documents, but that didn’t pan out.

“Businesses like ours that have large government contracts don’t want to wait to see what the courts say before we comply,” Taylor said. “Similarly, a lot of our clients are trying to jump out and get ahead of the OSHA deadline for the mandate, whether they have government contracts or not.”

In addition to other compliance duties, OSHA’s vaccination rules add a heavy recordkeeping burden on employers. The ability to digitally track vaccination documents and weekly COVID-19 test results makes compliance a bit easier. Sine (a Honeywell company) offers one such software solution to do it, along with programs like GoCo, UL’s COVID-19 Vaccination Tracker, and HealthChampion. Without the software, Taylor said many companies would manually track the records, which could risk compliance issues. “Programs like Sine become a true system of record,” he said. “Employees sign that it’s a true record of their health status, and that can help in case of an OSHA inspection.”

Tracking vaccination status and test results can be easier with the software platforms, which allow for customization based on local laws, changing requirements, and provide opportunities for company branding. Sine’s system also integrates with visitor management and access control systems, so if a visitor or employee isn’t vaccinated or has completed their weekly COVID-19 test, they could be denied access to facilities or alert the company. Taylor said this works out much easier than tracking down paper documents or other documentation in Microsoft Excel.

The hardest part of implementing the vaccine mandates may be tracking shift workers, contractors, and visitors to a facility. Unlike office workers who are at a computer all day, shift workers and contractors can be harder to account for, and they may not always have access to a computer. One way Taylor and Sine solved this problem was by putting up posters in their facility with QR codes, so people could scan them and fill out the documentation on their phones. Sine is now fully compliant with the vaccine rules in the U.S. and Australia, where Taylor lives and works and says far fewer people make a big deal out of vaccine rules.

With so many companies gearing up for a return to the office, getting more employees vaccinated can make people feel safer. “Some companies are surprised when their vaccination rates are at like 95 percent, a lot more compared to the general public,” Taylor said. “It gives employees more confidence for returning to the office.” Biden’s vaccine mandate may end up before the Supreme Court but regardless of the outcome, it’s in employers’ best interest to start planning now.

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