Jan. 4 vaccine deadline for large companies: Here’s what local, state leaders are saying

Workers at companies with 100 or more employees — including at hundreds of employers across Southwest Ohio — will need to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Jan. 4 or get tested for the virus weekly under government rules issued Thursday.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration says the rule will cover about 84 million employees and will prevent over 250,000 workers from being hospitalized with COVID-19 in the next few months.

More than 650 employers, including public entities, have more than 100 employees in Mercer, Auglaize, Darke, Shelby, Champaign, Miami, Preble, Clark, Greene, Clinton, Fayette and Montgomery counties, according to a survey from Dun & Bradstreet provided by the Dayton Development Coalition.

Tougher rules will apply to another 17 million people who work in nursing homes, hospitals and other facilities that receive money from Medicare and Medicaid. Those workers will not have an option for testing — they will need to be vaccinated. The Biden administration issued earlier vaccination mandates for the military and federal contractors.

Ohio Attorney General David Yost said Thursday he filed a lawsuit to block the new vaccine mandate for employees of federal contractors.

The suit, filed together with Geauga County Prosecutor Jim Flaiz and Sheriff Scott A. Hildenbrand, Seneca County Sheriff Fredrick W. Stevens and the attorneys general of Kentucky and Tennessee, challenges the administration’s authority to mandate COVID-19 vaccines.

“We have sheriffs that are going to lose a lot of talented deputies to this mandate, and they’ll ultimately give up their contracts to house ICE detainees rather than see that happen,” Yost said. “Forcing that kind of choice on people who dedicate their lives to keeping our communities safe creates a needless situation in which everyone loses.”

Many of the region’s largest employers already have enacted vaccine mandates for their employees, such as Premier Health, Kettering Health and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

“Vaccination against COVID-19 is our best tool to prevent spread of the disease and ensure the health and wellbeing of our hospital workforce and the communities we serve,” said Mary Boosalis, president and CEO of Premier Health, when announcing its mandate in August.

OSHA regulations will force the companies to require that unvaccinated workers test negative for COVID-19 at least once a week and wear a mask while in the workplace.

OSHA left open the possibility of expanding the requirement to smaller businesses. It asked for public comment on whether employers with fewer than 100 employees could handle vaccination or testing programs.

Workers will be able to ask for exemptions on medical or religious grounds.

Ohio Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Steve Stivers said the announcement was a “significant infringement on the ability of Ohio’s employers to set their own workplace policies.”

“Ohio businesses know best how to protect the health and safety of their employees, customers and patients and should not be subject to the heavy hand of government dictating a one-size-fits-all approach to COVID-19 vaccines and testing,” he added.

Jason Matthews, a Dayton attorney who specializes in representing employees in labor disputes, said these types of cases have already gone to trial when private sector companies have mandated their employees be vaccinated. In each case, the courts have let the mandate stand, he said.

“For the most part, private sector employers have a lot of discretion in what they can require of employees and even before the OSHA regulations came out, many private sector employers were requiring that employees be vaccinated,” he said. “Courts determined that those private sector employers did have a right to require employees to be vaccinated.”

Matthews said he expects to see more litigation come out of this mandate in the future.

Jeff Mullins, an attorney at Taft LLP in Dayton who often represents employers, said that employers need to figure out if the rules apply to them and how best to communicate them to employees.

He also cautioned employers that he “wouldn’t roll the dice on this one.” Companies that fail to comply with the regulations could face penalties of nearly $14,000 per violation.

“Unlike a lot of other OSHA standards, if an employer is covered, there’s probably an employee working somewhere in the company who thinks everybody should be vaccinated,” Mullins said. “And if that employee notices that the employer hasn’t done anything, and picks up the phone and calls OSHA and complains about this, that’s how this will get enforced.”

Mullins said this new rule could also affect if people decide to stay with the company they are currently working for.

“(That’s) one of the biggest issues that employers are going to probably face with this is over this next month,” he said. “They’re really struggling to keep good employees right now, so if somebody says, ‘I don’t want to get the vaccine,’ what do you do with that person?”

Also on Wednesday, 854 Ohioans ages 5 to 11 received their first doses of the pediatric COVID-19 vaccine, Gov. Mike DeWine said on Thursday.

The governor noted the data was preliminary and that count is believed to be slightly higher. The Ohio Department of Health reported 1,125 Ohioans ages 5 to 11 have received at least one dose the vaccine on Thursday.

It was the first day the vaccine was available to the age group, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending Pfizer’s pediatric vaccine Tuesday night. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has also recommended the vaccine.

Ohio has 367,500 pediatric doses either already in the state or on its way, DeWine said. Parents and guardians can contact their child’s health care provider or visit https://gettheshot.coronavirus.ohio.gov/ to schedule a vaccine appointment.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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