September 14, 2021
Five days after President Biden announced sweeping Covid-19 vaccination and testing requirements for large employers and federal contractors, colleges and legal experts are still trying to figure out how the new policies will affect higher education.
But experts say Biden’s mandates could give many higher-ed leaders the tools — and, perhaps, the political cover — to do something that they already wanted to do.
Biden has directed the Department of Labor to publish an emergency rule affecting private-sector employers with 100 or more employees, which must require those workers to be vaccinated or to be tested weekly for the virus. The department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, known as OSHA, could dole out fines of nearly $14,000 per violation.
The American Council on Education, higher ed’s main lobbying group, has been briefed by the White House on Biden’s plans, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government relations and public affairs. Many of the specifics remain in flux, Hartle said: “This is an unprecedented requirement.”
About 700 colleges already require their employees to be vaccinated, according to a Chronicle database.
More than 1,300 private colleges have 100 or more full-time and part-time employees, and there’s no doubt that they will be covered by the federal vaccine-or-testing rule.
Public colleges with 100 or more employees in at least 26 states should also be subject to the rule, Hartle said. Those states have entered into agreements with OSHA to operate state-level job-safety programs. State-level programs — which must meet or exceed all federal standards, like the forthcoming vaccine-or-testing mandate — cover public-sector employees, including faculty and staff members at public colleges.
The rest of the states are subject to federal OSHA enforcement, which only covers private-sector workers.
Biden also announced that all federal contractors would have to mandate vaccines, with no ability to opt for regular testing instead. Lots of public and private institutions are federal contractors.
But it’s not clear whether all of those colleges’ faculty and staff members will be required to get vaccinated.