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Pennsylvania business groups reserve judgment on Biden vaccine mandate

  • An-Li Herring/WESA
President Joe Biden speaks from the East Room of the White House, Monday, Aug. 16, 2021, in Washington.

 Evan Vucci / AP Photo

President Joe Biden speaks from the East Room of the White House, Monday, Aug. 16, 2021, in Washington.

(Pittsburgh) — As employers await more details on how the Biden administration will carry out its latest workplace vaccine mandates, pro-business groups in Pennsylvania have yet to take a stance on the issue.

President Biden announced the sweeping new rules, which are expected to impact two-thirds of the U.S. workforce, on Thursday. Some of them apply only to federal employees and contractors, as well as health care workers in settings that receive federal funding. But one of the orders requires vaccination against COVID-19, or weekly testing, for employees at firms with more than 100 workers. Biden said that regulation will impact 80 million private-sector employees.

Republicans were quick to condemn the policy, with some GOP governors threatening to challenge it in court. But two of Pennsylvania’s most prominent business groups said they are still assessing how the private sector will be affected.

The president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, Gene Barr, said in a statement Friday that his organization “will be examining the full scope of these orders.” But he added, “Employers can and should be trusted to make public health decisions that are in the best interest of their communities.

“We urge the Biden administration to offer business owners the clarity and flexibility they deserve as they strive to meet these new expectations while working to keep our struggling economy afloat.”

Barr noted that it remains unclear how federal officials will enforce the mandate, and who will pay for expanded COVID-19 testing. He said the policy should include liability protections for businesses that experience coronavirus outbreaks despite complying with the vaccine and testing requirements.

The White House hasn’t said when enforcement will begin, though it expects the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue the regulation in the coming weeks. Under the agency’s rules, violators can face fines of up to nearly $14,000.

Despite Barr’s concerns about how much the mandate will cost businesses, the Pittsburgh-based Allegheny Conference on Community Development noted that “vaccination is the best defense available to us and supports regional recovery from COVID-19.”

“Since the beginning [of the pandemic], the vaccine always played a role in return and recovery,” added Vera Krekanova, the Conference’s chief strategy and research officer.

Economic recovery hinges on “people feeling safe to interact and … get to places” as well as “all the systems that we need to have in place, like fully functioning day care, fully functioning schools,” Krekanova noted. “All of that [activity] facilitates … everybody’s engagement, interaction in the economy,”

Still, the Conference said it will gather more input from local business leaders before taking a position on Biden’s rule.

Last week, the group had begun to ask employers about their vaccination policies in a survey that launched a day before Biden unveiled his mandate.

Early results show that businesses had been divided on whether to require vaccination in the absence of government orders.

Close to one-third said they had already decided not to mandate vaccines, and an additional 18% said they were leaning against the idea. Sixteen percent, meanwhile, said they had implemented a mandate for all staff, and 12% said they would likely do the same. Smaller shares of employers said they were exploring other options, such as requiring vaccination only for employees who interact with the public or must be physically present at their workplace.

Most of the roughly 90 businesses that completed the survey by Friday submitted their answers before Biden announced his new rule. Krekanova said about 40% of those respondents will be subject to the mandate because they have more than 100 employees.

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