President Joe Biden’s recent move to require millions of workers to get vaccinated or tested weekly could create avenues for more people to return to the office and return to a workplace that’s closer to normal, businesses and experts said.
Biden on Sept. 9 ordered the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to create rules requiring companies with 100 workers or more to require either vaccination or weekly testing of employees.
At the same time, he required vaccinations for health care workers at facilities receiving Medicare and Medicaid and anyone who works for or does business with the federal government.
The new rules are expected to affect 100 million people, The Associated Press reports.
For some local companies, the rules could solve a long-standing problem of whether to mandate vaccinations or to leave it up to employees — both options come with the risk of losing employees. Others argue they’ve already taken steps necessary to keep their workers and clients safe and see the federal mandate as an intrusion.
Businesses such as Gulf Copper Dry Dock & Rig Repair largely have been sticking to recommending vaccination rather than attempting to mandate it for their workers.
Jonathan Hale, vice president of marine services for Gulf Copper, has been advising employees to get vaccinated, and more than 60 percent have, he said. But recommendation is as far as the company wants to go, he said.
“I can guarantee Gulf Copper will not force our employees to do anything that they don’t want to do,” Hale said. “We won’t force them. If OSHA forces it, then that’s not us.”
It’s still too early to know exactly how the new rule will affect local businesses until OSHA issues specific guidance, said James E. Pozzi, CEO and president of American National Insurance Co., which has hundreds of employees in Galveston and League City.
Although mandating vaccinations isn’t an OSHA action that typically comes to mind, these aren’t typical times, Pozzi said.
“It’s definitely a workplace issue, and I understand their desire to get involved in it,” Pozzi said. “This pandemic and virus is not business as usual.”
Like other workplace hazards, COVID poses a threat to employees — one that can be mitigated through vaccination, said Valerie Gutmann Koch, co-director of the Health & Law Policy Institute at the University of Houston.
“While this will be the first time OSHA would mandate workplace vaccination, it does really fall squarely in the responsibly of the Department of Labor,” Koch said.
Because the proposed order would allow non-vaccinated employees to get tested weekly, instead of requiring vaccination, the rule still allows some flexibility, she said.
It’s likely the requirements also will push more people to get vaccinated, said Vic Pierson, president of Moody National Bank.
“I think it might encourage more people to be vaccinated because they probably won’t want to do the weekly testing,” Pierson said.
Moody National Bank is monitoring the situation until OSHA issues official guidance, he said.
Biden’s mandate gives some legal cover for employers who might have been hesitant to impose a vaccination requirement, Koch said.
“There are a number of employers that have a desire to impose some test or policy in their workplace but were hesitant to do so because they were concerned there’d be employee attrition or more pushback,” Koch said.
Some businesses, however, already have created safety measures their leadership thinks work.
Although employees at Texas First Bank are back in the office, the company has been taking safety precautions and doesn’t hear about health concerns from workers, said Christopher C. Doyle, president and CEO of Texas First Bank.
Protecting employees requires balance, Doyle said. But in non-health care industries, like banking, he argues he can keep workers safe with masking, distancing and other safety procedures, he said.
“I’m certainly not in favor of forcing people to do things they don’t want to do,” Doyle said. “I am in favor of protecting my employees and my clients. There is a delicate balance.”
Several Galveston County businesses said that once the rules come out, they’ll comply with the new requirements.
While there could be some debate about whether employees should follow state laws, which in Texas have tended toward prohibiting vaccination requirements, or following federal law, federal law will always take precedence, Koch said.
“From a constitutional law perspective, we have a strong history in this country of the government stepping in to protect the health and welfare of its citizens,” Koch said. “We have a court case from 1905 that says the state can mandate vaccination when there’s a danger to the public health and that people’s freedom can be somewhat limited for the common good.”
American National has been moving employees back into its buildings, but only about 30 percent of its workers are in an office, Pozzi said. Eventually those people will have to return, he said.
“It’s a Catch-22 as an employer,” Pozzi said. “We’ve got a business to run and we’ve got to get people back in the building. We’ve got to take a stand to run the business.”