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Employer vaccine mandate set for Jan. 4, with big non-compliance fines

vaccine card
Companies have until Jan. 4 to make sure their workers are fully vaccinated.

The nation’s retail chains will have until after the holiday shopping rush to make sure their employees are vaccinated.

All private businesses with 100 or more employees have been given a Jan. 4 deadline to make sure their workers are either fully vaccinated or tested weekly for COVID-19 under rules released Wednesday by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under the Labor Department. The requirements were first outlined in September by President Biden, who directed the Labor Department to invoke its emergency powers to issue an emergency temporary standard to carry out the plan.

According to the requirements, all unvaccinated employees must provide a negative COVID test on a weekly basis after the January deadline. Anyone who tests positive is prohibited from going into work. They must also wear masks indoors, starting on Dec. 5. (Workers will be able to ask for exemptions from the OSHA requirements on medical or religious grounds.)

Employers won't be required to provide or pay for tests for unvaccinated workers under the new requirements unless they are otherwise required to by state or local laws or in labor union contracts.  But they must give paid time off for employees to get the shots and sick leave to recover from related side effects that prevent them from working.

[Read More: Five-step plan to prepare for workplace vaccine mandate]

OSHA’s rule will affect some 84 million U.S. private-sector workers, including some 31 million who were believed to be unvaccinated, according to the New York Times.

OSHA said companies that fail to comply with the regulations will face penalties that non-compliance can range from $13,653 per serious violation to $136,532 if a company willfully violates the rules. The agency, however, will face some enforcement challenges as it does not have nearly enough inspectors to do routine checking. According to reports, OSHA will respond to whistleblower complaints and make limited spot checks. The mandate also faces serious legal challenges from many Republican governors and state attorney generals.

Some retailers, including Walmart, have issued vaccine mandates for their corporate employees. But none of the major chains have done the same for their rank-and-file workers.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which had asked for a delay until after the holidays, thanked OSHA “making significant adjustments” that “reflect concerns of the business community.” But two of the nation’s largest retail associations were critical of the Jan. 4 deadline. The National Retail Federation noted that since the president’s announcement of the vaccine mandate for private industry, the seven-day average number of cases in the United States has plummeted by more than half.

“Nevertheless, the Biden administration has chosen to declare an ‘emergency’ and impose burdensome new requirements on retailers during the crucial holiday shopping season,” the group stated.

The Retail Industry Leaders Association said it had requested a 90-day implementation timeline to give employers more time “to design and implement the new vaccine and testing requirements after the holidays.”

“While the mandate on private employers technically begins post-holiday, the planning time to design and implement the mandate will fall during the busiest part of the shopping season,” RILA stated. “We also remain concerned about the nation’s testing capacity and have expressed those concerns to the Biden-Harris administration as they work to ramp up testing capacity across the country.”

RILA also called the noncompliance fines “unnecessary and unhelpful,” pitting government “against private employers instead of working with them to create a safe working environment.”

For a Q&A on the new requirements, click here.

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