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The White House moved from carrot to stick Thursday after President Joe Biden introduced a rule that requires companies with 100 or more employees to ensure that their workforces are fully vaccinated or can produce negative Covid tests at least once a week.
The new requirements are a step to "combat those blocking public health," Biden said at a White House briefing Thursday, noting that around 80 million Americans have "failed to get the shot."
"We have tools to combat the virus ... if we can come together as a country to use those tools," Biden said.
A rising number of Covid-19 cases has threatened children's return to school, slashed consumer confidence, rocked the jobs market, derailed travel plans, delayed employees' return to downtown offices and led more and more companies to downgrade their growth forecasts for the rest of the year.
Biden's multifaceted approach to resolving the issue includes three months of at-cost testing kits from Amazon, Walmart and Kroger. In addition, Medicaid beneficiaries will get full coverage for at-home tests, and the federal government will expand a free testing program to 10,000 pharmacies.
"We know vaccines, coupled with widespread and convenient testing, serve as powerful tools to help slow the spread of COVID-19 in our communities, keeping the U.S. economy open, and protecting America's workforce," Brian Huseman, Amazon's vice president of public policy, said in a statement. "We're proud to work with the Biden administration to increase access to affordable, high-quality, FDA-authorized tests, to keep us moving toward a full recovery."
Biden praised the companies that have already implemented mandates, citing United Airlines, Disney, Tyson Foods "and even Fox News."
United Airlines announced last month that all employees would have to be vaccinated by Sept. 25; the vast majority of its pilots and flight attendants have already gotten the shots. This week, the airline also said anyone refusing to be vaccinated for religious reasons would have to stay home until the pandemic "meaningfully recedes."
After meatpacking plants became early hotbeds for viral transmission, the meat producer Tyson Foods said last month that workers in its facilities would have to be vaccinated by Nov. 1.
Amid a critical shortage of workers, many CEOs who are in favor of vaccinations have said they have been holding back on mandates out of fear that workers would quit for competitors that do not require employees be inoculated. Biden's mandate simplifies that equation.
"We've noticed a huge increase, just recently, in the share of postings that either mandate or request employees be vaccinated," Julia Pollak, labor economist at the jobs platform ZipRecruiter, said last month, before the Food and Drug Administration's full approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech two-dose vaccine.
"When you see more major employers require vaccinations, that will probably set a trend for other employers to follow," she said.
Joshua Bolten, president and CEO of the Business Roundtable, a group of chief executives from companies including Amazon, Walmart and Home Depot, said in a statement Thursday: "Business Roundtable welcomes the Biden Administration's continued vigilance in the fight against COVID. America's business leaders know how critical vaccination and testing are in defeating the pandemic."
CVS Health said in a statement to NBC News that it applauds companies' decisions to implement vaccination mandates, adding that "vaccinating more Americans is clearly the most effective way to prevail over the pandemic."
A spokesman for the United Auto Workers said the labor union is "looking at the details of the announcement and how it impacts our over 700 employer contracts and our members," Reuters reported. Last month, UAW President Ray Curry said the union would need to negotiate before any mandates could be put into place.
Biden also issued an executive order that requires federal employees and contractors to get inoculated, a rule that will affect more than 2 million employees.
Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said in a statement: "NTEU will monitor closely the implementation of this policy at the agencies where we represent employees to make sure that those with medical and religious exceptions are accommodated."
He also said: "NTEU members, like American society at large, will have differing reactions to the new policy. Some employees will disagree. Others will welcome the additional security that comes with knowing that all of their coworkers are vaccinated. Either way, the law is clear that employers, including the federal government, may implement a vaccination requirement for employees."