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At least 1.8 million Philly-area workers fall under Biden vaccination, testing mandate

The mandate is unprecedented and could become a nightmare for human resource executives, one Cozen O'Connor attorney said.

Doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.
Doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.Read morePhoto by Brad Horrigan | bhorrig

Several Philly-area companies reacted with a wait-and-see attitude on Friday to President Joe Biden’s sweeping order requiring vaccinations or weekly COVID tests for American workers in larger companies.

David N. Taylor, head of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association, said that Biden’s plan was “deeply upsetting” and “wildly inappropriate” by forcing businesses to make employees vaccinate or test. Taylor said he believed some employees will quit their jobs instead.

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) questioned whether Biden has the legal authority, adding that a White House mandate “will further alienate the skeptical, undermine our institutions, and punish ordinary business owners and their employees.”

Other firms like Lockheed Martin, a defense and aerospace supplier with employment centers in King of Prussia and Moorestown, said they would comply with the Biden rule and any other government mandates related to the pandemic.

And next week, the Philadelphia-area bank WSFS will require proof of vaccination for employees. “If employees are not vaccinated, they will be required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test weekly. Those who are not vaccinated need to continue to wear a mask at all locations. We also encourage anyone who feels more comfortable wearing a mask to please do so,” said Rebecca Acevedo, spokesperson for WSFS Bank.

Announced on Thursday, Biden’s plan would require businesses with more than 100 employees -- along with federal contractors, postal workers, court employees in Philadelphia, and others -- to get their workers vaccinated against the coronavirus or undergo weekly testing. In recent days, cases and hospitalizations have appeared to level off in the area, which experts attribute in part to the region’s relatively high vaccination rates.

Biden’s plan seeks to further tame the surging delta variant as COVID vaccinations have stalled among people who don’t believe in the vaccination or don’t think they need it. Others will balk at the Biden plan because they don’t want to be told what to do with their bodies, officials said Friday.

Almost 80% of Philadelphia-area private sector workers, or 1.8 million employees, would fall under the Biden mandate, based on an Inquirer analysis of 2018 U.S. Census data on workplaces. In addition, the federal government employs thousands of workers around the region.

James J. Sullivan Jr., co-chair of the OSHA workplace safety practice at the Cozen & O’Connor law firm, said the mandate is unprecedented and could become a nightmare for human resource managers who will have to enforce it. “We are getting bombarded with calls from employers,” Sullivan said.

Biden will implement his plan through emergency regulatory powers at OSHA, or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Department of Labor agency with oversight of workplace safety. Sullivan believes that even if the legal challenges derail Biden’s mandate at OSHA, the plan’s publicity could force employers to mandate vaccinations or testing on employees.

Among other facilities, the Biden plan targets hospitals and nursing homes dependent on Medicare and Medicaid funding. Biden’s plan also calls for entertainment centers, such as sports arenas, concert halls, and other venues where large groups of people gather to require that spectators be vaccinated or show a negative COVID test.

The U.S. Postal Service’s 600,000 workers do not fall under Biden’s vaccine mandate for federal workers, but will be subject to the rule that businesses with more than 100 employees require vaccination, the Washington Post reported.

Federal union leaders reacted with concern. Everett Kelley, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said in a statement that the union encourages vaccination and believes “it is the best way for us to protect each other in the workplace.” But Kelley also said that “workers deserve a voice in their working conditions” and he expects officials to bargain over the vaccination plan.

The union has 16,500 members in Pennsylvania and Delaware who work in several federal agencies.

Taylor, the president of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association, said he supports vaccinations. But he said that if the plan “is allowed to stand, it will be an absolute scramble [for companies.]” Among his concerns were that it would worsen a labor shortage for companies and keep businesses from expanding beyond 100 employees so they don’t have to comply with the mandate.

Despite the uncertainty, some Philadelphia-area businesses were clear about what to do.

Rich Rowe, CEO of chemical firm Arkema in King of Prussia, part of a French company, said the company “has strongly encouraged all employees to receive a COVID-19 vaccine since they became more widely available earlier this year. ... We’ve closely followed the guidance of the CDC, OSHA, and local health officials since the start of the pandemic, and will evaluate new vaccine and testing rules from the Department of Labor and OSHA once they are released.”

Several companies said they would continue to offer incentives. Vanguard Group spokesperson Amy Lash said that the financial services firm with 12,000 workers has been offering a $1,000 payment for employees to be jabbed by Oct. 1. “We are strongly encouraging crew to be vaccinated, as we believe vaccines are the best way to stop the spread of this virus,” she said.

A Peco spokesperson said it currently offers employees paid time off if needed so they can get a COVID-19 vaccine during work hours. The utility also offers an additional paid sick day beyond the regular allotment to handle any side effects. “We strongly encourage our employees to get vaccinated in accordance with current CDC, county, and state guidance,” said spokesperson Mayra Bergman, adding that it was still evaluating the administration’s new mandate.

Dupont spokesperson Dan Turner said that 63% of Dupont’s 11,000 U.S. employees are vaccinated. That leaves 4,000 unvaccinated Dupont employees. Executives said they will review the OSHA emergency standard “that is being developed to better understand compliance with a new rule for private employers. In the meantime, our employees are encouraged to consult with their physician/health-care provider regarding a vaccination decision that is right for them, given options made available by local government,” Turner said in an email.

Conshohocken-based AmerisourceBergen, the large pharmaceutical distributor, said it had recently required all U.S. employees to become vaccinated by Nov. 1, with limited exceptions. “This policy is generally aligned with the direction from the Department of Labor and we’ll plan to incorporate any additional regulatory requirements into our existing protocols as needed and directed,” spokesperson Mike Iorfino said.

Comcast had no comment on Friday. A company spokesperson said Comcast and NBCUniversal employees who returned to work by Oct. 18 have to be fully vaccinated. “We also held a vaccination event for employees last week in Philadelphia,” the spokesperson said.

At American Airlines, CEO Doug Parker and president Robert Isom told employees in a Friday morning message that the company was still reviewing the new measure, but that “it appears we will be impacted by these federally mandated efforts to increase vaccination rates.”

American and its regional air carriers employ about 9,000 people based out of Philadelphia.

Parker and Isom encouraged unvaccinated employees to make use of new company incentives, such as an extra day of vacation pay, once they get a vaccine. Biden’s “actions underscore the importance of team members getting vaccinated against COVID-19 — and sooner rather than later,” the executives said.