Two-thirds of U.S. workforce face Jan. 4 deadline to get vaccinated under new White House rule

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WASHINGTON — Employers in the private sector will have two months to ensure their workers are fully vaccinated or tested weekly under a new federal regulation detailed Thursday that will affect more than two-thirds of the country’s workforce.

Any employer failing to meet the requirements by Jan. 4 could face nearly $14,000 in fines for each employee who isn't in compliance, a senior administration official said. Employees who are not fully vaccinated will be responsible for covering the cost of their own weekly testing.

Employers will be required to provide paid time off for workers to get vaccinated and recover from any side effects starting Dec. 5, the same day when unvaccinated employees will need to wear masks in the workplace.

The requirements, which will cover an estimated 84 million workers, follow an executive order from President Joe Biden in September that said businesses with at least 100 employees must ensure their workers are fully vaccinated or undergoing weekly Covid-19 testing. The White House has issued a series of mandates for workers across the federal government and health care sector to encourage vaccinations after a surge of coronavirus infections overwhelmed hospitals and led to a spike in deaths over the summer.

The order targeting the private sector has already drawn threats of lawsuits from dozens of Republican attorneys general and caused some businesses to raise concerns about finding enough vaccinated workers in an already tight job market.

White House officials have said vaccine mandates voluntarily put in place by major companies are proving effective at increasing vaccination rates. At United Airlines, one of the first corporations to impose vaccine requirements, 99 percent of workers are now vaccinated, officials have said.

"As we’ve seen with businesses — large and small — across all sectors of our economy, the overwhelming majority of Americans choose to get vaccinated," Biden said in a statement Thursday. "There have been no 'mass firings' and worker shortages because of vaccination requirements. Despite what some predicted and falsely assert, vaccination requirements have broad public support."

The administration plans to fight the lawsuits being brought by states like Ohio, Indiana and Iowa, and officials said they believe they are on strong legal footing, arguing the mandates are necessary to ensure a safe workplace.

"The administration clearly has the authority to protect workers and the actions announced by the president are designed to save lives and stop the spread of Covid," said White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Thursday. "DOJ will be defining these laws. This is a once in a generation pandemic; as we know, it's taken more than 740,000 lives. And that's what we're trying to do here in this administration, we're trying to to save lives."

In Thursday's announcement, the White House said it was extending the timeline for federal contractors to get fully vaccinated, pushing the previous Dec. 8 deadline to Jan. 4.

Officials also said that health care workers will be required to have their employees vaccinated by Jan. 4 if they want to receive payments from Medicare and Medicaid programs, as part of a separate executive order Biden signed in September. There will be no testing opt-out option for health care workers, and the rule will apply to more than 17 million people, including trainees, volunteers and contractors regardless of whether they interact with patients.

A second official said the administration will work with health care providers to help them comply with the rule, while also warning it could ultimately bar them from receiving Medicare and Medicaid payments, which cover the vast majority of seniors and the disabled, if they are in violation.

The administration’s “goal is to bring health care providers into compliance — it is not to punish workers or health care facilities,” the official said. “However, we will not hesitate to use our full enforcement authority to protect the health and safety of patients.”

For the employer requirement, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said it will enforce the rule by relying largely on tipsters and spot checks to find any employers who are in violation.

Enforcement by OSHA could prove challenging for an agency with stretched resources, former officials have said. The agency, a division of the Labor Department, had just 862 inspectors in early 2020 to carry out all of its regulatory enforcement duties, according to data obtained by NBC News through a Freedom of Information Act request. The number of inspectors has largely declined in recent years. In 2021, the agency lost another 65 inspectors, despite new hires, according to data from OSHA.

While 70 percent of adults are already fully vaccinated, OSHA estimates the requirement would prevent over 250,000 hospitalizations during the first six months and save thousands of lives, a senior administration official said.

More than 3,500 organizations, including private businesses, hospitals, schools and local governments have already put vaccination requirements in place, and those requirements have increased vaccination rates by more than 20 percentage points to more than 90 percent, White House officials said last month.