HR’s Guide to the New COVID-19 Vaccine & Testing Mandate

Everything HR needs to know about President Biden’s new vaccine mandates

by Aimie Ye, SEO Manager @ GoCo

On September 9th, President Biden introduced a six-part “Path Out of the Pandemic” plan, with new steps designed to combat COVID-19 and its variants. Within the six-pronged strategy, the introduction of a sweeping vaccine mandate — that affects over 100 million American workers — has received an overwhelming amount of both positive and negative response. The mandate will be imposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), as well as the Department of Labor (DOL). Regardless of your organization’s stance on the mandate, here’s everything HR needs to know, and how to prepare.

Details on the New Vaccine Mandate

Does the vaccination mandate affect my organization?

HR departments all over may be wondering if or how the new vaccination mandate will impact their own organizations. The new vaccine mandate:

  • Requires all employers with more than 100 employees to ensure their workers are vaccinated OR tested weekly before coming to work
  • Requires vaccinations for all federal workers and for government contractors
  • Requires vaccinations for healthcare workers at Medicare & Medicaid participating hospitals and healthcare settings
  • Calls on large entertainment venues to require proof of vaccination or testing for entry
  • Requires all employers to provide Paid Time Off (PTO) to get vaccinated

OSHA will issue an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) to implement the rule, though it is not clear when exactly the ETS will be announced.

When does the mandate officially go into effect?

It may still be weeks before OSHA publishes the ETS, but here are some estimates (Source: Reuters).

  • For private sector businesses of 100+ employees, we’re still waiting on a hard-and-fast date. The Department of Labor (DOL) must issue the rule first, which is expected in the next few weeks. Officials estimate that after the requirement is issued, employers and workers can expect to have 50 to 90 days to get compliant.
  • Healthcare workers can expect an “interim rule” to be put in place from mid-to-late October, effective immediately when the rule is announced.
  • Federal workers have about 75 days to comply with the new vaccination mandate, as the White House indicated.

*Keep in mind that these are estimates based on current reports from officials. Dates are subject to change at any time.

Who is exempt from the federal vaccination mandate?

As of right now, the President’s remarks did not cover which, if any, exemptions will be allowed. Even so, HR should plan to understand exemption guidance for employees who cannot comply due to a disability, medical conditions or religious beliefs.

What happens if organizations fail to comply?

If organizations that fit the underlined criteria fail to comply with the mandate, they could be fined nearly $14,000 per violation. Federal workers could also face termination if they refuse vaccination (without an exemption). It is not yet clear how compliance will be enforced.

How do I track and manage vaccine records or test results?

HR should have a plan for tracking and managing vaccine documents and records, in order to stay compliant with OSHA guidance. Having a modern HR software like GoCo can be a game changer.

GoCo just announced a brand new COVID Compliance feature, that will enable HR teams to: 

  • Track proof-of-vaccination & weekly test results
  • Save time with employee self-service status updates
  • Run vaccine data reports to ensure organization compliance
  • Customize COVID-19 tracking workflows with advanced configuration options
  • Manage all of their other HR tasks within the same platform (i.e. onboarding, benefits administration, payroll, and beyond)

HR can require documentation within the HRIS and add custom settings for easy reporting. Employees simply need to upload their vaccination records or test results to save it to their profile, and HR will be notified to review them. You can also set-up custom permissions depending on who should be given access. 

Learn more about COVID Compliance Tracking in GoCo

Sign up for updates on GoCo’s new feature for tracking vaccines and testing. 

HR’s Role in Enforcing the Vaccination & Testing Mandate

Where does HR come in when it comes to enforcing the mandate? Should this be an administrative task for a different department? No matter where your employer falls on the issue, HR leaders might be expected to:

  • Monitor employee sentiment and feedback
  • Handle resistance to regulations
  • Keep up to date around new legal concerns
  • Identify the best methods for tracking vaccines or managing weekly tests
  • Communicating updates to employees in a timely manner

Because of these expectations, it’s important that HR stays well-versed on the issue. Here are some additional questions HR may be asking, should OSHA’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate go into effect.

How do I decide between requiring vaccinations and weekly tests?

At present, there is no specific guidance around which route is “better” for your organization in the “Vax-Or-Test” order (if your organization is affected by the mandate). However, here are a handful of key considerations before you decide:

  1. Monitor developments and official rulings. First and foremost, make sure you understand the rules and regulations, as well as any new OSHA guidance. New guidance around vaccination vs. testing may affect which route to take for your business. 
  2. Understand the risks and benefits that come with each choice. If you decide to require vaccinations, expect to create a plan for announcing the mandate to employees, a mandatory vaccination policy, a method for responding to resistance, and a guide to addressing exemption requests based on disability or religion. If you decide to require weekly tests, expect to research different types of COVID-19 tests and understand the average turnaround times for results.
  3. Estimate and recognize the costs involved. Create a budget ahead of time that includes the cost of providing PTO for employees to get the vaccine, the cost of paying for weekly tests, and the cost of time off to get weekly tests. Stay up-to-date on business loans or credits you can apply for in regards to time-off for testing or vaccination.
  4. Evaluate options for tracking vaccinations or managing weekly test results. HR must create a plan for record keeping, new company-wide policies, tracking exemptions and more.
  5. Prepare for inspections. Should the mandate be implemented, HR should be aware that OSHA inspections may be conducted without notice.

Who will pay for weekly COVID-19 tests?

Should you decide to require weekly testing, you must decide whether your organization will pay for testing, or if you will require employees to pay for it. At present, though Federal Law requires insurance companies to cover tests ordered by a healthcare provider, weekly & routine workplace tests are exempt — which means employers must make the call on who pays (as of right now).

Employers can consider a wide range of approaches, from completely covering routine testing costs to having unvaccinated workers pay for their own tests. There is no single recommended method, but employers should consider:

  • The estimated cost of the company picking up the tab for weekly tests
  • The employee response and potential backlash if they are personally required to pay the price of weekly testing

How should I handle employee resistance?

If employees raise concerns about the vaccination-or-testing mandate, HR managers should be prepared to:

  • Help employees understand the “why” behind the policy. Come with facts and OSHA guidelines to explain how these policies will help ensure the continued safety of workers everywhere.
  • Listen & be empathetic. Especially in instances of resistance, your employees should know that you value differences in opinion as well as their concerns. Listen to them, while offering up details and facts on why you must take these measures, and how it ties in with OSHA compliance.
  • Identify solutions for supporting employees that cannot be vaccinated for approved reasons. This may mean exploring work from home options, or getting weekly testing. Additional education and information may also help vaccine-shy employees, so HR departments can also consider consulting or inviting medical professionals in for guidance.

How do I evaluate religious exemption requests?

Religious exemptions to the vaccination mandate can get complicated quickly. Individualized religious beliefs and interpretations vary greatly, so you may be wondering how to validate religious exemption requests.

If you’ve received a request for exemption on religious grounds, take these steps to evaluate:

  1. Ask them to provide a written narrative explaining the religious basis for their exemption request.
  2. Review the narrative and evaluate. Does the narrative fully support the religious request? Does the narrative lack support, or is it focused on other fears or political stances? 
  3. Reach out to an employment lawyer. If you are still uncertain of whether an employee is entitled to exemption on religious grounds, the safest move is to involve a professional employment lawyer to determine next steps.

Remember to be sensitive throughout the process, as religion can be incredibly personal. This means reading every narrative carefully, as well as keeping the process as confidential as possible for employee safety purposes. Read more here on how HR can handle accommodation requests for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Under what conditions do you consider mandating the vaccine even if you’re not required? 

Even if your organization is not required to enforce vaccinations or weekly tests by the upcoming mandate, you might choose to require them anyways. Conditions in which you may consider mandating the vaccine include: work that requires in-person interaction in confined spaces or areas of high transmission, work that involves at-risk populations, work that involves large groups of people, and more.

This decision should be well-researched, and employers must understand the legal consequences. Here are a few considerations before implementing a mandatory vaccination policy:

  • Implementing a policy like this can lead to employee resignations or terminations. Be prepared for the consequences of implementation.
  • State or local laws might affect whether or not you can implement a mandatory vaccination policy. Review your local guidelines and do your due diligence as the laws change frequently.
  • There are exceptions to implementing a policy, just like there are for the Federal order. Exceptions around disabilities, pregnancy, and religion are required by law for organizations with 15 or more employees, so make sure you familiarize yourself with these beforehand.
  • Employees need ample time to prepare and to get compliant with your policies. Take note of this before setting deadlines.
  • Just because you’ve created a policy, does not mean that there are no risks. Speak with an attorney before making your decision.

For a complete guide to mandating vaccines in your organization, view our guide here


Unanswered Questions Around the New Mandate

Though the mandate was introduced on September 9th, OSHA has not yet issued the Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) to implement the requirement, which means that there are still outstanding questions that need to be answered. A few questions of these questions include:

  • Does this mandate apply to remote workers?
  • Will employers be required to collect proof of vaccination?
  • What type of COVID-19 testing will be required for organizations that need routine testing?
  • Will there be more information or options on payment for tests?
  • What is the specific guidance on exemptions due to medical conditions or religious reasons?
  • How will the 100-employee threshold be counted?
  • Will testing centers be able to handle this huge increase in testing volume?

As OSHA gives more guidance on the vaccination mandate, we will provide updates on these questions. In the meantime, HR and employers should focus on planning for the mandate, gauging employee sentiment around it, and considering any legal implications it brings. GoCo is dedicated to supporting HR in grappling with ever-changing federal regulations and employee concerns. To learn more about how GoCo can help you track vaccinations, request a free demo today, or sign up for notifications about our new COVID Compliance Tracking feature below. 

Learn more about COVID Compliance Tracking in GoCo

Sign up for updates on GoCo’s new feature for tracking vaccines and testing. 

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