Vaccine mandate: Workplaces face ‘tough call’ for who pays for testing demands under Biden's rule

More unvaccinated workers will be required to get the COVID-19 vaccine by January 4th, or face regular testing under the new guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released last week.

While the Biden Administration’s vaccine mandate isn’t in full effect yet, it's already caught up in the courts. On Saturday, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily blocked new vaccine mandates and testing regulations put in place by OSHA. Still, the White House said this week that businesses should move forward with the requirements for private businesses.

OSHA released its long-awaited emergency temporary standard (ETS) on Thursday that calls for employers with 100 or more employees to either implement a vaccine mandate to ensure workers are undergoing regular COVID-19 testing and wearing face masks at work. —

The rule covers both full-time and part-time workers, which includes more than 84 million workers and two-thirds of the nation’s private sector workforce. 

One area that remains unknown is who bears the cost of COVID testing. The federal government has not agreed to pick up the tab, nor has it said that businesses are required to cover the cost, unless stipulated by state or local laws or in labor union contracts.

The presidential mandate comes as employers across the nation are facing an acute labor shortage amplified by strong demand and pandemic-era stress factors. 

Meanwhile, deep pockets of vaccine resistance are worsening the problem, with employers increasingly faced with the stark choice of complying with government mandates, or turning away talent that may not want to be vaccinated.

Lauren Winans, CEO of Pittsburgh-based human resources consultancy Next Level Benefits, expects employers will pay for COVID-19 testing to maintain operations and productivity flowing. 

"They're going to need to start paying for that testing, as time goes on here because most employees will look for another employer if they're not able to feel comfortable in the environment that they're working in," Winans told Yahoo Finance Live on Thursday. 

While it's unclear as to where these regular testing would need to be, Winans believes that most large businesses will offer the testing onsite. 

"There may be some employers who choose to have that testing done at an offsite location but I do think that from a procedural and process standpoint, onsite is going to be the best way to go," she added. 

There's going to be a lot of debate around what exactly is going to be required as part of the testing process, what type of test, how quickly the results will need to be, and where the employee goes while they're waiting for those results.Lauren Winans, Next Level Benefits CEO

As January is shaping up to be the new September for large U.S. companies to summon remote workers back to long-deserted offices. And the "weekly" testing requirement for unvaccinated employees could impact businesses at large. 

"Getting that testing is going to take away time from you doing your job. It's going to slow down, your own productivity," said Winans. Another issue companies will have to consider is who will be tracking employees testing.

"That's going to take time and effort. It's going to take people away from their regular jobs, there might even need to be a head count added in certain circumstances," Winans added.

Roughly 70% of U.S. adults are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. More than half of employees have said they support their current employer implementing vaccine mandates, no matter the size of the company, according to a Qualtrics survey of 1,309 U.S. workers in October.

The federal government has scrambled in recent months to shore up the U.S. supply of rapid tests, including at-home kits. OSHA's new rules, however, require that the employer to observe the test and the results, or an authorized Telehealth proctors observe workers taking the tests. 

"Time is going to tell quite frankly," said Winans. "There's going to be a lot of debate around what exactly is going to be required as part of the testing process, what type of test, how quickly the results will need to be, and where the employee goes while they're waiting for those results." 

COVID testing won't be cheap

One thing appears certain: The testing requirement is likely to be a costly endeavor for workers and companies alike. Employers are required under fair labor standards to compensate employees for their time, if they get tested during normal working hours.

Meanwhile, the costs of an at-home COVID-19 test — which involve a nasal swab — vary widely: Prices at major hospitals ranging between $20 and a whopping $1,419 per test, with the median at $148, according to April 2021 data from Kaiser Family Foundation analysis.

Rapid tests costs in the range of $15 to $25. However, the median cost of more-likely-to be-accurate P.C.R. (polymerase chain reaction) tests is substantially higher, at $127, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

In New York City, residents can get a free P.C.R. test at one of the city’s express testing centers, with results promised within 24 hours or less. But many clinics offer the tests at a cost in exchange for expedited results. 

Clear-19 Rapid Testing, for example, which is located in Midtown Manhattan, charges a stiff $389 to deliver P.C.R. results in two hours, or $175 for a 24-hour turnaround.

“The reason that we’re seeing differences in prices is partly because of out-of-network use of laboratories to process tests,” Gerald Kominski, a health policy expert at the University of California Los Angeles, told Yahoo! Finance in an interview.

“The other reason for the varying costs of the test is that there are different testing technologies, some of which are more accurate than others,” he added.

While businesses face questions about the new requirements, it's unlikely that health insurances will cover the costs, according to Next Level's Winans. 

"It's part of an employment contingency much like when you start a new position, and you might be required to do drug testing or background testing, that's not covered by your insurance," the CEO said. 

Yet questions linger for remote workers, and whether they're subject to testing if that alternative is provided. The federal rules does not apply to employees who work remotely 100% of the time, or who work exclusively outdoors. 

However, if employees do come into the office periodically, then they'll need to be tested. That makes it "challenging for employers who might be offering hybrid work arrangements, where their employees are mostly offsite and working remote, but occasionally come onsite," Winans told Yahoo Finance.

Vaccine mandate could require a 'tough call' 

Before the new OSHA standard, the pandemic caused various questions about which protective measures employers should cover for workers such as waiting for a temperature checks before entering a building. 

In states like California, business are required to provide free personal protective equipment, and offer free COVID-19 testing to all employees if three or more employees are infected with the coronavirus within 14 days. 

The standard also requires that vaccination status must be documented. However, the proposed language for the revised ETS doesn't match the language of the updated OSHA's ETS, leaving many wondering if California will align with the federal mandate. 

"California is a very employee protected state and oftentimes does provide more protection to the employees than the federal government does," Natasha Chesler, a Los Angeles employment lawyer who represents workers and employers in wage and hour cases at Chesler McCaffrey LLP, said in an interview. 

"There's a chance we see the employer being required to pay in California. It's a tough call," she added. 

Companies that delay implementing a policy and tracking the vaccination or testing status of their employees could face costly fines if they miss those deadlines.

And OSHA can penalize employers up to $14,000 per employee who fails to comply with the rule. But that could escalate, and businesses may face additional fines of about $136,000. 

Dani Romero is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter: @daniromerotv

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