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The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Thursday announced a Jan. 4 deadline for businesses to start enforcing a COVID-19 vaccination mandate or require their unvaccinated workers to undergo weekly testing and wear a face covering on the job.

Employers will not have to pay the cost of weekly COVID-19 testing for the unvaccinated or supply face coverings, according to the emergency temporary standard (ETS) issued by OSHA. However, employers may be required to pay for testing to comply with other laws, regulations, collective bargaining agreements, or other collectively negotiated agreements, OSHA said.

The ETS also requires employers to provide up to four hours of paid time off to allow employees to get the vaccine and provide them with “reasonable” time off and paid sick leave to recover should they experience vaccine side effects that prevent them from coming to work.

All businesses with 100 or more workers company-wide, (not just at one location), are subject to the ETS, which will impact an estimated 84 million people, or two-thirds of the private sector workforce, OSHA said. In 26 states and two territories with OSHA State Plans, the ETS also applies to public sector workers employed by state and local governments, including educators and school staff.

New Jersey already has a vaccine mandate, with a testing option, for state workers and school personnel. Many large private companies, including major airlines, manufacturers, and retailers, have taken similar actions too by adopting vaccine requirements or regular testing to protect workers and customers.

Since 2020, the coronavirus has led to the deaths of 750,000 people in the U.S., and the infection of millions more, making it the deadliest pandemic in the nation’s history. OSHA estimates that this rule will save thousands of lives and prevent more than 250,000 hospitalizations due to workplace exposure to COVID-19.

“COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on workers, and we continue to see dangerous levels of cases,” said U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh. “We must take action to implement this emergency temporary standard to contain the virus and protect people in the workplace against the grave danger of COVID-19. Many businesses understand the benefits of having their workers vaccinated against COVID-19, and we expect many will be pleased to see this OSHA rule go into effect.”

OSHA said it is mostly relying on complaints to investigate employer noncompliance with the ETS. Fines for violations can start at $13,653 each and go up as high as $136,532 per violation if employers are found to be willfully non-compliant or repeat offenders.

The ETS, which does not apply to fully remote employees, requires employers to do the following:

  • Determine the vaccination status of each employee, obtain acceptable proof of vaccination status from vaccinated employees, and maintain records and a roster of each employee’s vaccination status.
  • Require employees to provide prompt notice when they test positive for COVID-19 or receive a COVID-19 diagnosis. Employers must then remove the employee from the workplace, regardless of vaccination status; employers must not allow them to return to work until they meet required criteria.
  • Ensure each worker who is not fully vaccinated is tested for COVID-19 at least weekly (if the worker is in the workplace at least once a week) or within 7 days before returning to work (if the worker is away from the workplace for a week or longer).
  • Ensure that, in most circumstances, each employee who has not been fully vaccinated wears a face covering when indoors or when occupying a vehicle with another person for work purposes.
  • Provide employees with:  (1) information about the requirements of the ETS and workplace policies and procedures established to implement the ETS; (2) the CDC document “Key Things to Know About COVID-19 Vaccines”; (3) information about protections against retaliation and discrimination; and (4) information about laws that provide for criminal penalties for knowingly supplying false statements or documentation.

OSHA is offering compliance assistance to help businesses implement the standard, including frequently asked questions and other compliance materials.