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New vaccine requirements go into effect Jan. 4

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You can now add COVID-19 to the list of workplace safety issues the federal government is taking on. New regulations would require either weekly testing or proof of vaccination for some 100 million U.S. workers. Several Republican-led states are already threatening to defy the rule, but the administration says the regulations are part of a strategy to curb the pandemic. Here was President Biden back in September.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: This is not about freedom or personal choice. It's about protecting yourself and those around you; the people you work with, the people you care about, the people you love. My job as president is to protect all Americans.

CORNISH: Here to explain how it will be enforced is Labor Secretary Marty Walsh. Welcome to the program.

MARTY WALSH: Thanks for having me today.

CORNISH: Now, OSHA falls under the Labor Department. That's why we're speaking with you. And under these new rules, employers can either offer paid time off for vaccination and any leave needed to recover from potential side effects, or they have to allow for weekly testing. But they're not required to pay for the weekly testing. Why not?

WALSH: Because what we're looking at here is they have the option. And then there's other laws that govern different areas of payment, potentially. What we wanted...

CORNISH: But from the outside, it looks like you don't want - that you basically want to encourage the vaccination more than you want to encourage the weekly testing.

WALSH: Well, at the end of the day, we want to encourage the vaccination, so I'd say yes to that. But also, we - there's also a provision there for collective bargaining. There's provisions in there for other laws that govern paying of different, you know, potentially medical needs.

CORNISH: What is the administration doing to support businesses in terms of helping them to comply with this?

WALSH: Well, you know, we're working now - we put out the standard today. We're working with businesses that have questions on it. We're going to be sending them more information about it to know how to implement this. You know, a lot of businesses have already started, began something to this manner. You know, we chose intentionally 100 or more - businesses with 100 or more people because we knew that they had, potentially, the infrastructure to handle this. And we're going to answer any questions they might have.

CORNISH: There are some retail groups who are already saying, look, 60 days is not enough time to be in compliance. What's your response to that?

WALSH: Sixty days - I mean, we looked at the timeline. And OSHA feels and the folks who put this together feel that that is more than enough time to be able to come up with a good, strong standard inside their businesses.

CORNISH: Now, the White House has said that the rule will override state and local laws, including those that might ban or limit an employer's authority to require vaccination, masks or testing. What does that mean for a state, for instance, like Texas, where there is an executive order barring these kinds of vaccination rules?

WALSH: Yeah. The OSHA ETS would supersede that law, and it's no different than a law in Texas that would over - supersede a local law. I mean, I think that that's - when we think about that - and that's the intention behind the emergency temporary standard. And OSHA has...

CORNISH: I mean, the reason why I'm asking this is nine states are already suing the administration - right? - over its vaccine requirement...

WALSH: Well, I'm not sure how many...

CORNISH: ...For workers employed by a federal contractor. You already...

WALSH: Yeah, I'm not...

CORNISH: ...Have the Iowa governor saying she plans to take immediate legal action. The Arizona attorney general says he plans to sue. So are you ready to spend time in legal challenges over this rule?

WALSH: Yeah, of course we are. We're confident about the rule we put together. And I think it's unfortunate that this role has been out for about eight hours now, and people already are suing on it. This is about protecting workers in the workplace. This is about protecting Americans. This is about increasing our number of people in this country that have - that are vaccinated. And people who choose not to be vaccinated, they have the ability to be tested once a week and wear a mask in the workplace if they're around other people.

CORNISH: Are you equipped as a department to enforce this?

WALSH: Yes, we are. We are equipped. And OSHA's equipped. They've done this several times. They have a history of 50 years of doing this.

CORNISH: But what does that mean? Does that mean when you're already on a site visit, you're going to add this to the list of check-offs? Are you going to increase site visits? I mean, realistically, what does this mean?

WALSH: We're going to do both. I mean, I think we're going to do both out there. And also we're going to be working with - you know, I think - I have a feeling, in talking to OSHA, we're going to have a high compliance rate here with businesses as we move forward here.

CORNISH: What's the benchmark for effectiveness, meaning how will you know if the new rule is working?

WALSH: I mean, I think over time we're going to be looking at people vaccinating and keeping track of how many people we have vaccinated. I think, honestly, if we save one life by doing this - and obviously we're going to do more than that - and we're able to protect one workplace - and we're going to do more than that as well - that's our intention.

The president, as you played a little earlier, was talking about protecting American families and American people, American workers, and that's the goal behind this. This is not to be burdensome to businesses. This is not to be a problem. This is meant to continue to move us forward in the fight against the coronavirus.

CORNISH: In that piece of tape we played that you mentioned, the president talked specifically about the idea of this not being about freedom or personal choice. And yet for the movement against kind of what they would call vaccine mandates or government overreach, that's precisely what they concern - what their concern is, that this is an overreach. What is your response to that?

WALSH: Well, the beauty is this isn't an overreach, and this isn't a mandate. This is businesses encouraging people to be vaccinated. And if people decide and choose not to get vaccinated...

CORNISH: But do you worry about a backlash effectively, right?

WALSH: Well, let me just...

CORNISH: I mean, there's already that kind of movement.

WALSH: I just want to finish my thought real quick. You know, they have to get tested. And again, it's about protecting workers in the workplace so that coworkers feel safe.

As far as a backlash, you know, I mean, I just - I'm a little amazed by the overall situation we're in as a country when it comes to vaccines. Again, I think a lot of people, including myself, were excited when the vaccines were approved and people were getting vaccinated. We lost almost 850,000 American lives to COVID-19. And we want to - I would love to see that, the president love to see that stop if we can, and this is one step towards that.

CORNISH: That's Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh. Thank you so much for your time.

WALSH: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.