Is Biden's federal vaccine mandate for large businesses happening or not?

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Jim Geraghty asked that question this morning and I’ve been wondering about it myself. I’m going to seize this opportunity to double down on my scorching hot take that there is no actual federal vaccine mandate, just a few lines in a speech Biden gave a few weeks ago that were never intended to be turned into law. Biden knew that lots of major corporations wanted to require their employees to get vaccinated but didn’t have the balls to do it, fearing that anti-vax consumers might boycott them and that their unvaxxed workers might quit and seek jobs at businesses where they wouldn’t need to get their shots.

Biden’s proposed federal mandate for firms with 100 or more employees was a feint aimed at giving those corporations political cover to do the thing they already wanted to do. Anti-vaxxers couldn’t rightly boycott companies with a vaccine mandate once a mandate had been imposed by the White House on all major businesses. And unvaccinated workers could no longer count on being hired on by a shop without a vaccine mandate if the new federal mandate meant that all large employers would be forced to require vaccination.

So Biden announced his plan and companies immediately sprang into action, not even waiting for a formal regulation. It was a political stunt, a head fake, not a serious promise to codify a rule in the form of an actual honest-to-goodness federal rule!

Wellllll … maybe not. The mandate probably will be codified by OSHA in the weeks ahead, if only to prove that Biden wasn’t lying brazenly when he said a mandate was coming. But since the regulation is headed for all sorts of legal and practical trouble, I stand by my belief that the White House sees its value mainly in terms of the political cover it provides to pro-mandate business owners, not in terms of it being a workable federal policy that’ll be meaningfully enforced by OSHA.

For what it’s worth, Jen Psaki said yesterday that a formal regulation is still in the works: “We never gave an exact timeline, so — maybe we should have been more specific at the time. Obviously, it takes some time. And we want to make sure when we put these out, they’re clear and they provide guidance necessary to businesses.” It’s true that it might take some time to make the guidance clear given how opaque the mandate is. Trade groups are already peppering OSHA with logistical questions, e.g., what sort of proof of vaccination workers will need to provide, whether natural immunity will satisfy the vaccine requirement, whether the feds or companies themselves need to track workers’ vaccinations, etc. OSHA’s lawyers are doubtless wracking their brains, trying to anticipate all of the issues that may arise once the rule is issued and to address them in the rule itself.

But in the meantime, businesses aren’t waiting for the formal rule to be promulgated before issuing their own firm-wide mandates. Those mandates are working too:

California’s policy has led thousands of previously unvaccinated medical workers to receive shots in recent weeks. At Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, about 800 additional workers have been vaccinated since the policy was announced last month, bringing the hospital’s vaccination rate to 97 percent, according to my colleague Shawn Hubler.

When New York State announced a mandate for hospital and nursing-home staff members in August, about 75 percent of them had received a shot. By Monday, the share had risen to 92 percent. The increase amounts to roughly 100,000 newly vaccinated people.

At Trinity Health, a hospital chain in 22 states, the increase has been similar — to 94 percent from 75 percent, The Times’s Reed Abelson reports. At Genesis HealthCare, which operates long-term-care facilities in 23 states, Covid cases fell by nearly 50 percent after nearly all staff members had finished receiving shots this summer.

On August 3, when Tyson Foods announced its vaccine mandate for 120,000 workers, fewer than half of its employees were vaccinated. Now 91 percent are. The company says it’s lost only a small percentage of workers over the mandate, which seems to be typical for businesses. Most unvaccinated employees end up deciding that they’re not so opposed to vaccination that they’re willing to switch jobs over it. A hardcore few are, but not enough that anyone’s suffering major workplace shortages.

Heck, even the Vatican has a workplace vaccine mandate. Although not one that’s required by Uncle Sam, of course. They answer to … a higher authority.

The GOP proposed a bill today that would have blocked federal funding for vaccine mandates, effectively defang-ing Biden’s policy. It failed on a 50/50 party-line vote, predictably. Yet another poll today shows that Biden’s mandate is mildly popular with Americans, with the AP finding a 51/34 split. A constant in the various surveys that have found support for the mandate between 50 and 60 percent is the sizable minority of Republicans in favor. Typically that’s in the 30-percent range; the AP poll finds 27 percent of GOPers supportive. That’s a case of vaccinated righties letting their desperation to move past the pandemic override their partisan duty to oppose Biden in all things.