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Labor secretary says companies have already stepped up on vaccines 'with or without' a mandate

·Senior Producer and Writer
·3 min read
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Secretary Marty Walsh and his Labor Department lost this week at the Supreme Court.

In a 6-3 decision, the court's conservative majority blocked the Biden administration from enforcing its vaccine-or-testing mandate for employers with more than 100 workers.

The high court's majority called that mandate no "everyday exercise of federal power." The Labor Department has the power "to set workplace safety standards, not broad public health measures," according to the Supreme Court's majority.

The Labor Department's Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) had been charged with enforcing the Biden administration’s plans through an "emergency temporary standard."

But in an interview for this week’s episode of Influencers with Andy Serwer, taped before the decision dropped, Walsh focused on the fact that no matter what, many businesses are already on board with vaccine or testing requirements.

Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh looks on as U.S. Vice President Harris visits Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 189 union during a trip to promote the infrastructure plan in Columbus, Ohio, U.S. November 19, 2021. The Labor Department is awaiting a Supreme Court decision on the vaccine mandate. REUTERS/Gaelen Morse
Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh during a divisit to a union in Columbus, Ohio with Vice President Kamala Harris last November. (REUTERS/Gaelen Morse)

“I think most companies have stepped up,” Walsh said, noting they have a responsibility to their employees. “Many companies support us. But even with or without what the [emergency temporary standard] says, it's still going be the responsibility to work with employers to make sure that workplaces are safe for their workers.”

'They've already thought about this'

The guidance from OSHA said the agency would not issue citations for failing to comply with the testing requirements until Feb. 9, “so long as an employer is exercising reasonable, good faith efforts to come into compliance with the standard.”

The OSHA rules had planned to require U.S. employers with 100 or more workers to ensure they're either fully vaccinated for COVID-19 or tested each week. A separate mandate said health care employers that receive Medicare or Medicaid funds must vaccinate their employee workforce, with no testing alternative. The Supreme Court's majority upheld that mandate in Thursday's decision.

A lone protester stands outside the U.S. Supreme Court as it hears arguments against the Biden administration's nationwide vaccine-or-testing COVID-19 mandates, in Washington, U.S., January 7, 2022.  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
A lone protester stands outside the U.S. Supreme Court during recent arguments against the Biden administration's nationwide vaccine-or-testing COVID-19 mandates. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

The rules at issue would have impacted over 100 million Americans in total, with the requirement for large business covering 84 million U.S. workers. The health requirement — which will go into effect — applies to another 17 million or so workers.

Walsh has visited 30 states and 60 cities in his first year as Labor Secretary and says the vaccine or testing setup is a topic that comes up regularly. 

“We talk about vaccine programs they have,” Walsh says, noting among larger employers “all of these companies have programs set up already so they've already thought about this.”

Much of the planning, he notes, began way back in mid-2020 long before anyone was talking about mandates. COVID tests were developed quickly with the emergence of the virus and vaccines began to roll out before Biden and Walsh took office.

Ever since Biden first announced the mandate on Sept. 9, it has often been noted how a wide range of America's largest companies from American Express to Starbucks have implemented their own requirements for employees.

President Biden himself has often cited these companies. “Some of the biggest companies are already requiring this: United Airlines, Disney, Tysons Food, and even Fox News,” he said in September. Fox News has even tightened its restrictions recently, reportedly removing the testing option for its office workers in New York City last month.

Asked about the plan if the Supreme Court struck down the requirement, as it ultimately did, Walsh said, “The plan is that we're going to be asking employers to continue to make sure that workplaces are safe."

This story was updated after the Supreme Court issued its ruling on Thursday.

Ben Werschkul is a writer and producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.

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