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A big job for small government agency. Enforce vaccine rule for 80 million workers

COVID-19 vaccines are offered at Lake Charles Memorial Hospital on August 10, 2021 in Lake Charles, La. President Biden has ordered 80 million workers in the U.S. to get vaccinated or undergo regular testing.
COVID-19 vaccines are offered at Lake Charles Memorial Hospital on August 10, 2021 in Lake Charles, La. President Biden has ordered 80 million workers in the U.S. to get vaccinated or undergo regular testing.

In early September, just before President Biden ordered 80 million workers to get vaccinated or undergo regular testing, a question went viral on the internet.

"Would y'all report your unvaccinated co-worker(s) for $200K?" asked @RevampedCP on Twitter.

The responses came quickly.

I would report my coworkers for a bag of Flamin' Hot Cheetos. And not even a party size bag.

I'd report them to get out of work five minutes early. I'd report them to get out of work two minutes early.

I'd report them for a basket of Shake Shack fries.

I'd report them for free.

"I was not expecting this," says Arianny Mercedes, the career strategist and public policy student at the University of Virginia who dashed off the original tweet as she contemplated how far people would be willing to go to get back to "normal."

The question became all the more relevant a day after her tweet, when President Biden ordered workers at companies with 100 or more employees to get vaccinated or undergo regular testing. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency overseeing workplace safety, is still working out the details but is expected to issue a rule later this fall.

And then comes the challenge of enforcement, which brings us back to the question about co-workers.

Given how small and chronically understaffed OSHA is, the idea of snitching on someone in your office is actually not that far from reality.

Employee complaints are an important part of enforcement given how few inspectors the government has, says Rich Fairfax, a safety consultant with the National Safety Council who spent 36 years at OSHA, including as head of enforcement.

According to OSHA, there are about 1,850 federal and state inspectors covering some 8 million worksites nationwide.

"So you can do the math," Fairfax says. "They clearly can't go into every one."

Animal rights activists protest in front of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration building in Los Angeles, Calif., on March 12, 2021, calling on OSHA to do more to protect slaughterhouse workers from COVID-19.
Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images
Animal rights activists protest in front of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration building in Los Angeles, Calif., on March 12, 2021, calling on OSHA to do more to protect slaughterhouse workers from COVID-19.

In addition to responding to complaints, Fairfax thinks inspectors will simply add Covid-related tasks to their to do lists — looking to see if a company is keeping vaccination records and running a testing program — when they're already inside the workplace checking up on safety hazards or incidents.

Fines for a serious violation can be up to $13,653 per violation, or ten times that for a willful or repeated violation.

Still, the press releases that accompany OSHA fines often have a larger impact than the fines themselves, says Jordan Barab, who was acting head of OSHA under President Obama.

"Employers told us OSHA penalties are... really just a part of doing business," he says. What companies really don't like is having their name in the news in a negative light.

Barab believes the vast majority of companies will comply with the federal vaccine rule once it's rolled out, but nevertheless, it's a big moment for OSHA.

"They've been kind of this small agency that nobody noticed much, and suddenly they're thrown into the spotlight with an extremely controversial policy," he says.

It's a policy the government hopes will soon be less controversial, now that more and more workers are getting vaccinated, and vaccine mandates are reporting success.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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