There were some valid initial reasons to question President Joe Biden’s recent order compelling employers of 100 or more workers to take steps meant to curb the spread of COVID-19.
At first glance, and perhaps thanks to a flurry of imprecise headlines and news leads, it appeared to be the flip side of blanket mandates such as those issued by some state governors forbidding mask and vaccination requirements.
“Sweeping vaccination mandate” might have been the three most common words in circulation during the days just after Biden announced his intention.
But Biden didn’t issue a vaccine mandate. He presented the employers of about 100 million American workers with an either-or proposition. Either require employees to be vaccinated, or set up systems to ensure they test negative at least once a week.
In fact, none of those 100 million workers would be forced into accepting the jab under Biden’s order. They all instead can opt for weekly testing.
That fundamental difference got lost in the initial hue and cry over Biden’s order.
The option sets Biden’s order somewhat apart from orders such as those Gov. Greg Abbott issued forbidding public employers from requiring vaccines or masks or doing much of anything else in attempt to manage the very real havoc COVID can wreak on their operations, people and bottom lines.
We often have stuck up for the concept of local control and will continue to do so. There are, however, no local-control angels in this case.
The state and federal governments are tossing blankets of various density over situations that vary in detail from place to place.
It’s valid to argue Biden’s order is an intrusion on local control, reasonable in some places and burdensome in others; but that same criticism is valid for Abbott’s orders.
And there’s an even more fundamental difference between the two. It’s a difference of intent.
It’s one thing to usurp local control in attempt to keep people from getting sick and dying and to prevent the economic loss that workplace COVID outbreaks cause.
It’s another do so in service of a mostly partisan and weakly supported notion of individual rights.
The truth is, this is not an academic proposition to be debated at the level of philosophical nuance. It’s a public health and safety issue, and government’s responsibility and authority in that context is well established.
The federal government has vast power to impose workplace safety rules. It has had that power since 1970 when President Richard Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act into law.
The government requires hard hats and steel-toed boots in some workplaces, and the law generally mandates employers take steps to ensure a workplace free of obvious hazards likely to cause death or serious harm to employees.
No government at any level has authority to forbid any of that, however.
Meanwhile, people have all sorts of theoretical rights. A person has a right to have his skull drilled, tapped and fitted with titanium horns. He might not be able to also hold a job that requires a hardhat, however.
Biden’s order will burden some employers, as does the whole cosmos of workplace safety rules. It also will provide some with political cover to do what they wanted to in the first place.
Taking the political heat for unpopular decisions is among the things governments do.
It’s the same reason they pass laws forbidding tobacco smoking in bars and restaurants.
• Michael A. Smith