The Biden administration on Thursday set Jan. 4 as the deadline for large companies to mandate coronavirus vaccinations or start weekly testing of their workers, the government’s biggest effort yet to enlist private businesses in combating the virus.
The new rule, applying to companies with 100 or more employees, is expected to cover 84 million workers, roughly 31 million of whom are unvaccinated. It lays out details of a plan President Biden announced in September, invoking emergency powers over workplace safety.
In a separate measure that will affect 17 million more workers, nursing homes and other health care facilities that receive Medicare and Medicaid funds must ensure all employees are vaccinated by Jan. 4, with no option for testing. The president has previously imposed vaccine requirements on federal workers, a group that totals more than four million people, and companies that have federal contracts. (The latter group’s deadline was pushed to Jan. 4, from early December.)
But the mandate on large private businesses is the most far-reaching and potentially controversial measure in the government’s efforts to fight the pandemic. Attorneys general in at least 24 states have threatened to sue. Republican governors and some industry trade groups have opposed the requirement, and the 20 percent of U.S. adults who remain unvaccinated may take issue as well.
And the administration is considering going even further. The Labor Department said it had opened a 30-day comment period on whether it should extend the rules to smaller companies.
“While I would have much preferred that requirements not become necessary, too many people remain unvaccinated for us to get out of this pandemic for good,” Mr. Biden said in a statement.
Still, with the country facing shipping delays and shortages caused by supply chain problems, the January deadline allows retailers and logistics companies, both in need of employees, to get through the holiday shopping season before instituting the requirements.
The rule does, however, instruct employers to require masks for unvaccinated workers by Dec. 5. Companies must provide paid time off for vaccinations and sick leave for side effects as needed. The requirement does not apply to remote and outdoor workers. Some major companies including Tyson Foods and United Airlines have already embraced vaccine mandates. But for many that have been fearful of resistance, the new requirement provides cover to enforce mandates and clarification on a range of questions, including who will pay for testing and whether it applies to employees who work at home.
With many of those questions now answered by the requirements and detailed guidance published by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, many more businesses are expected to soon announce mandates.