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Truckers may be exempt from federal vaccine mandates, says Labor Department

November 8, 2021, 10:30 PM UTC

Despite concerns that federal vaccine mandates would exacerbate transportation supply chain challenges, it now appears the mandate could have little effect on the trucking industry: Truckers may be exempt from new requirements by U.S. regulators. 

Last week, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration released an emergency temporary standard (ETS) that requires employers with 100 or more workers to implement vaccine mandates by Jan. 4, 2022, or ensure that unvaccinated employees are undergoing weekly COVID-19 testing. Those workers who have not yet been fully vaccinated will need to start wearing face masks in the workplace starting Dec. 5, according to the new regulation. 

But the ETS does not apply to employees who “do not report to a workplace where other individuals such as coworkers or customers are present, employees while they are working from home, or employees who work exclusively outdoors,” according to OSHA’s summary of the new regulation. 

By that definition, many truckers may be exempt since drivers are often not employees, but independent contractors who are owner-operators of their own freelance business and operate their routes solo. “We’ve heard some pushback from truckers today. The ironic thing is most truckers are not covered by this, because they’re driving a truck, they’re in a cab, they’re by themselves, they wouldn’t be covered by this,” Labor Secretary Marty Walsh told CNBC late Thursday.

The American Trucking Associations said Friday that it was reading the new regulations the same way. “The rule published yesterday exempts employees who exclusively work outdoors or remotely and have minimal contact with others indoors, and all indications thus far from the Department of Labor suggest this exemption does apply to the commercial truck driver population,” president and CEO Chris Spear said in a statement. 

“We see quotes from Labor Secretary Walsh as an enormous victory for our association and industry. Given the nationwide shortage of truck drivers, it is vital that our industry has the relief it needs to keep critical goods moving, including food, fuel, medicine, and the vaccine itself,” Spear added. 

A Labor Department spokesperson clarified Walsh’s comments, telling Fortune that vaccination and testing requirements for unvaccinated workers would apply to truckers who work in teams—for example, those who have two people in the truck cab—or those who interact with people indoors at the origin of their route or at their destination.

Among all unvaccinated workers nationwide, about 37% say they would leave their job if their employer required COVID-19 vaccinations as a condition of employment, according to the latest KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor published Oct. 28, 2021

That could be a problem in industries with continued low vaccine uptake, including trucking. About two-thirds, or 66% of those working in transportation have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to an ongoing survey of 50,000 U.S. adults by the Delphi Research Group at Carnegie Mellon University. Responses were as of Oct. 30, 2021.

Although the OSHA rules will push many companies to implement vaccine mandates, about 25% of workers say their employer already required COVID-19 vaccinations, according to KFF. And only 5% of unvaccinated adults actually left their job because of a vaccine requirement.

That could be cause for optimism as to whether vaccine mandates will help alleviate some of the recent supply chain issues in the long run, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Monday. “There are a thousand points in that chain where something can go wrong, and we’re seeing a lot of those points reveal themselves because of the enormous demand, the constraints on supply, the outdated infrastructure that all runs across, and then the fact that the pandemic is poking holes in all of the above,” Buttigieg told reporters. 

“The best way to end a pandemic-related shortage is to end the pandemic, and that’s why the vaccine push is so important,” Buttigieg said.

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