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Federal vaccine mandate for companies with 100+ employees: who will enforce it?

As employers prepare for new vaccine requirements, many are unclear on how it can be enforced.

HARRISBURG, Pa. — President Joe Biden’s federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate for employers of more than 100 people will come into effect in the next few weeks. As employers prepare for the new requirement, though, many are unclear on how it can be enforced.

The job of enforcement technically falls to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which oversees the vaccine mandate as a matter of workplace safety.

“They’re saying that it’s businesses protecting customers and other people from having sick employees entering the workface. So that’s what gives OSHA the jurisdiction,” said Scott Cooper, partner at the Schmidt Kramer law firm in Harrisburg.

OSHA can fine companies for not having vaccinated workers. A “serious” violation could result in a fine of $13,653, while “willful or repeated” violations could cost $136,532.

The fines, while significant, may be less damaging than public naming and shaming. The press releases that often announce these violations paint companies in a negative light. The threat of bad press could be a stronger deterrent to ignoring the mandate, experts said.

“A lot of the fines, I don’t think initially are going to be implemented, whatever they are,” Cooper said.

Still, OSHA is a small agency that only has about one compliance officer for every 70,000 American workers. The agency simply doesn’t have the resources to enforce the mandate on its own.

President Joe Biden is largely relying on private companies to enforce their own mandates.

“So today I’m calling on more employers to act. My message is to require your employees to get vaccinated. With vaccinations we’re going to beat this pandemic finally,” Biden said on Oct. 7.

Efficiency is another reason individual company mandates are often more effective than the federal mandate.

WellSpan Health, for example, announced a vaccine mandate for its employees on Oct. 10. Workers would technically already fall under the federal mandate for employers of more than 100 people, as well as the mandate for workers at healthcare facilities.

But WellSpan’s mandate has specified rules on religious and medical exceptions, as well as a timeline for employee vaccinations. Meanwhile, the federal mandate was announced Sept. 9, but the Biden administration still hasn’t released an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS), a rule that lays out mandate specifics.

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