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Business leaders support Biden’s vaccine mandate—but only if the rules are workable

October 19, 2021, 11:41 AM UTC
Federal rules will help reopen the economy but poor implementation could deepen mistrust.
JIM WATSON - Getty Media

As the White House reviews the text of the new guidelines submitted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to implement the president’s federal vaccine and testing mandates, it must take the concerns of business leaders into account.

Three main areas of concern were flagged in a recent survey of 100 CEOs and directors, all impacted by the federal mandate, by the Committee for Economic Development (CED) of The Conference Board. 

Defeating the pandemic, protecting the health and well-being of the workforce, and reopening the economy safely and assuredly for the American public are goals the business community shares and supports. Nearly two-thirds of the surveyed leaders at businesses of all sizes support the president’s decision to mandate vaccines or weekly testing for companies with over 100 employees.

However, the intensity of the opposition is worthy of note. Almost a quarter of the business leaders strongly disagree with the mandates. This raises serious questions about whether OSHA, a small and overburdened agency, has the capability to enforce compliance. Significantly, more than half of the business leaders are concerned about their ability to implement the mandate at their companies.

Given the strong opposition felt by a quarter of the business leaders and the expected difficulties in implementation felt much more broadly, there are several important steps the administration should take. Such actions would ensure that the mandate performs as planned to defeat the pandemic, rather than creating more division and problems.

Do not squander business support. It is incumbent upon the administration to work with business leaders who are representative of the full range of companies with over 100 employees. As partners, they must develop the guidelines, implement them, and address concerns. Businesses will have to deal with a full panoply of problems as the mandates are implemented, including lawsuits. Due to the urgency of the Delta variant, OSHA will be bypassing its ordinary rulemaking processes, which only underscores the importance of consulting closely with those who will be on the front lines of implementing their policies. If they do not, they risk producing more confusion and resentment than vaccinations.

Guidelines must be clear, fair, and consistent. In a tight labor market, businesses support a federal mandate because it provides consistent requirements for all employers. If companies were to mandate individually, they would run the risk of losing employees to other firms. However, this support could be undermined by vague and confusing protocols. For example, guidelines must clearly define eligibility for vaccine exemptions. Supplies of vaccines and tests need to be readily available. Standards for testing, record-keeping, and penalties for employees who do not comply must be clear. We also must ask ourselves whether we are prepared to fund the social safety net if the unvaccinated fall out of employment.

Trusted information about the safety of the vaccines must be readily available. Private sector leaders can and should play an important role in providing trusted information on the vaccine to their employees, but they need the support of public health officials. Several of the administration’s COVID policy announcements, including its most recent decisions on additional booster shots, have inspired more confusion than confidence. The vaccine mandate rollout cannot afford more loss of trust. 

The CED poll demonstrates the kind of support the administration can count on. The vaccine mandate can be an opportunity to stem the latest COVID outbreak and reopen the economy. Business leaders also know that the details of the mandate—the actual rules and regulations—will be critical. Unless the OSHA vaccine guidelines are clear and thoughtfully designed to fulfill their purpose, they could lead to more division in the workplace and in society at large.

Lori Esposito Murray, Ph.D., is the president of the Committee for Economic Development (CED) of The Conference Board.

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