Workers at companies with 100 or more employees will have to either get vaccinated for COVID-19 or wear face masks and take weekly tests under an emergency standard published Friday.

The scope of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed nearly 750,000 Americans, makes the issuance of the Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) necessary, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said Thursday on a call with reporters.

“They’re not just statistics,” Walsh said of people who have died of or been sickened by the virus. “Many of these people are essential workers in our communities — grocery store workers and delivery drivers, farmworkers and meatpackers, first responders and sanitation workers.”

OSHA estimates the ETS would save over 6,500 worker lives and prevent over 250,000 hospitalizations over the next six months.

The vaccination requirement becomes effective within 30 days of the publication of the ETS in Friday’s Federal Register while the testing/masking requirement kicks in within 60 days.

“OSHA is requiring employers to bear the costs for employee vaccination,” including up to four hours of paid time and reasonable paid sick leave needed to support vaccination, the ETS says.

The ETS does not require employers to pay for testing or face coverings, meaning workers who choose to remain unvaccinated may have to pay for those.

The ETS “does not impose … testing or face covering costs on employers," it says. In some circumstances, however, "employers may be required to pay for the costs related to testing and/or face coverings by other laws, regulations, or collectively negotiated agreements.”

Walsh said some employers already have adopted similar vaccination requirements. Tyson Foods, for example, said Oct. 26 that more than 96% of its workforce has been vaccinated since the company announced the requirement Aug. 3.

The ETS will cover more than 84 million workers, or about two-thirds of the nation’s private-sector workforce, Walsh said.

“In the 26 states and two territories with OSHA State Plans, the ETS will also cover public sector workers employed by state and local governments, including educators and school staff,” OSHA said in a news release.

State or local laws that conflict with the ETS standard are preempted by it, OSHA Solicitor Seema Nanda said.

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Some farm organizations have expressed concern about the mandate. In a news release issued Wednesday, the National Milk Producers Federation said several of its members, along with members of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, discussed the matter Oct. 18 with the Office of Management and Budget.

“The coalition that met with OMB raised numerous concerns about the mandate while making it clear it will continue to advocate for vaccinations,” NMPF said. 

“Still, key questions include whether there will be enough tests to handle the demand,” NMPF said. “If there are insufficient tests to meet demand, the coalition is concerned the program will fail, further disrupting an already fragile supply chain. NMPF suggested that the White House should consider invoking the Defense Production Act (DPA), as it did several times in the past year to address other COVID related issues, to ensure availability of affordable rapid COVID-19 tests.”

And NCFC President Chuck Conner said Thursday he was “disappointed" that the ETS "fails to adopt several commonsense accommodations to recognize the unique nature of agriculture."

Conner continued, "While the ETS compliance deadline does take farmer co-ops past harvest and does exempt employees working exclusively outdoors, implementing this standard will be disruptive and it contains no provisions included to help ensure the integrity of the food and agriculture supply chain. NCFC will be providing formal comments to OSHA outlining our concerns further and will work with our members to look for ways to minimize the disruptions this ETS will cause to a critical sector of our economy.”

The Health Action Alliance said about 3,500 employers nationwide have already implemented COVID-19 vaccination requirements or mandatory testing policies. HAA has released a Sample COVID-19 Vaccination Policy for Employers that “provides a customizable template and all the procedural details you’ll need to implement the policy that’s right for your workforce,” HAA says.

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