- Retailers are asking for 90 days before the Biden administration implements new rules requiring workers at large employers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, with trade organizations raising questions about what compliance will entail.
- Policy officials with the National Retail Federation and the Retail Industry Leaders Association sent a joint letter earlier this week to the Department of Labor and its Occupational Safety and Health Administration asking for the 90-day timeline "to allow retailers and other employers to create the systems necessary" to meet the new requirement and also posed a long list of questions.
- The Food Industry Association said in an emailed statement that it is raising "serious questions" to the Biden administration and committee leadership on Capitol Hill about what implementation of vaccination and testing requirements would look like.
Retail and grocery workers have been on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis, asked both to accept the risks of public-facing work amid a deadly pandemic and to enforce health protocols for themselves and customers.
The letter from RILA and NRF also raised a long list of questions, including around how vaccinations will be verified, how to respond to employee refusals, the definition of "vaccinated," religious and health exemptions and several other topics.
"As we have navigated federal and state requirements, recommendations, and protocols, we have learned that it takes time to implement successful testing and vaccination programs — particularly in the face of challenges related to availability, access, and verification," RILA's Michael Hanson and NRF's David French wrote in the letter.
Based on that experience during the pandemic, they asked OSHA to "consider the extensive measures that every company will need to undertake to implement the requirements" of the administration's mandate. The letter also asks that the agency weigh "the stress this action will place upon the availability of and access to vaccines and tests" — hence the request for three months' lead time to prepare for implementation.
The questions raised in RILA and NRF's letter to OSHA outline some of the specific potential difficulties retailers anticipate with the rule. Among others, the groups asked about how the rule would apply to minors, how it will interact with state rules, who pays for tests when employees opt for weekly testing over a vaccine and other issues raised by the groups' member companies.
Earlier this month, President Joe Biden announced that he had asked OSHA to develop a rule requiring companies with 100 or more employees to ensure their workforces are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to weekly testing. The mandate followed a deadly surge in COVID-19 transmission beginning this summer driven by the delta variant, which has put a strain on medical resources, particularly in states and regions with lower vaccination rates.
At the time of Biden's announcement, FMI released a statement that included several questions for the administration, including how long businesses would have to fully vaccinate their workforces and about the availability of COVID-19 tests.
“There are simply more questions than answers at this point,” Jennifer Hatcher, the trade group’s chief public policy officer and senior vice president said in the statement, noting the trade group is working on understanding what compliance will entail within existing privacy, employment discrimination and leave laws and regulations.
Hatch said in an emailed statement on Friday that FMI and its members "are particularly concerned with access to an adequate number of COVID-19 tests to comply with the requirement on a weekly basis; whether tests will be prioritized for the nation’s essential workforce; and if the testing requirement would be suspended during any time periods when tests may be unavailable."
Echoing RILA and NRF, Hatch wrote in the email that it will take time to design a compliance system that includes privacy protections to share and store information about testing results and vaccination status for workers, including minors.
A spokesperson for the National Grocers Association said that the trade group does not have a statement to share on the pending OSHA vaccination rules and is continuing to review information as it becomes available "to better understand the impact on our member companies."
Other trade groups and leaders have given full-throated endorsement to the mandate. After Biden's announcement, American Apparel & Footwear Association CEO Steve Lamar issued a statement saying in part, "These steps will go a long way to ensure that we are getting vaccines in arms, and that we can protect our workforce from this disease that has already cost the world so much."