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OSHA Fills in the Vaccine Mandate Leadership Void

Most Michigan colleges and universities will institute a vaccine mandate no later than January 4. The rule will apply to states where OSHA has jurisdiction over government workers. Michigan is among that group.

That means public and private colleges with 100 or more employees must comply with the vaccine mandate. The rule shifts the vaccine debate from a political issue to a workplace safety concern. Although courts have upheld vaccine mandates already, OSHA’s authority over the workplace is clear. There is little likelihood that legal challenges can delay the vaccine mandate.

Under OSHA rules, employers must provide paid time off to get COVID-19 vaccinations as well as sick time for those experiencing side effects. The rule will apply to all faculty and staff, including student workers. Allowing OSHA to lead the vaccine mandate likely preempts state laws where vaccine mandates are barred.

More than 1,000 higher education systems across the country already require their employees to be vaccinated. As of right now, more than 62% of Michigan’s eligible residents have received the vaccine. In Washtenaw County, 72% of eligible recipients are fully vaccinated. That will change on Monday, however, when eligibility expands to children ages 5-11. Earlier this week, Pfizer won FDA approval to provide its two-dose vaccine to children.

The CDC also indicated this week that its definition of “fully vaccinated” would likely change to require three vaccine shots for adults. Currently, fully vaccinated senior citizens (those age 65 and up) and adults 50+ with underlying health concerns can receive a booster shot.

Disagree with vaccine mandate? There’s always weekly testing…

The Department of Labor will require non-compliant workplaces to initiate weekly testing of all unvaccinated employees. Weekly testing and monitoring will place a significant burden on employers. Large employers will likely find it much easier to simply require workers to get the vaccine.

Employers can already require their employees to receive vaccines. In that regard, the OSHA vaccine mandate is not new. Pfizer remains the only fully authorized vaccine available. Moderna, Johnson and Johnson remain available under an emergency use authorization.

The OSHA rule puts workplaces like Washtenaw Community College behind the 8-ball. WCC could have mandated the vaccine as part of its “back to work” plan in the fall but chose not to. Now it appears that the College will have to implement a vaccine mandate prior to the start of the Winter semester.

Since it is a workplace rule, the OSHA mandate does not apply to students. Applying the rule to students, however, would help reduce COVID-19 spread among young adults. It would also be convenient to allow students to take advantage of testing and vaccination opportunities required as part of the rule. It’s unfortunate that it takes a federal workplace safety order accomplish what the WCC administration should have done months ago.

Photo Credit: Jimmy Baikovicius, via Flickr