The Biden administration wasted no time in announcing its plan to control the COVID-19 pandemic. On President Biden’s second day in office, he released a 200-page National Strategy for the COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness, a “roadmap to guide America out of the worst public health crisis in a century.” The strategy puts forth seven goals built around restoring trust, mitigating the spread of COVID-19, mounting an effective vaccination campaign and more, with one result being the restoration of U.S. leadership and preparation for threats in the future. While these are government initiatives, some of the plan’s key provisions directly affect employers.
An executive order directs the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to revise guidance and issue an emergency temporary standard (ETS) that implements pandemic-related measures such as mask wearing and social distancing while employees are at the workplace. On January 29, OSHA published Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace as a first step. Employers should be certain that they are meeting current safety protocols and those of the ETS, once issued.
The plan also directs OSHA to strengthen enforcement resources for workplace safety violations that put the largest number of workers at serious risk of illness. Details are still to come, but the focus likely will be on businesses with large public-facing workforces (retailers, grocers, health care workers, etc.) and those serving critical infrastructure (public utilities, construction, food processing, etc.). Look for Congress to allocate additional funds for OSHA enforcement to support these efforts.
Pandemic supply chain support
A separate executive order invoked the Defense Production Act to ensure that the supply chain for personal protective equipment (PPE), COVID-19 tests, and COVID-19 vaccines are available for essential workers. The administration will work with state and federal agencies to accelerate manufacturing, delivery, and distribution of crucial supplies. Employers with large, unionized workforces and those supplying critical infrastructure should start to see federal and local government resources available for on-site vaccination programs and education about vaccine benefits.
Paid leave expansion
Biden’s strategy calls on Congress to extend and expand emergency paid leave to workers. The plan seeks to reinstate the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), the mandatory paid leave provisions which Congress did not extend beyond the end of 2020. In the meantime, employers can voluntarily provide FFCRA leave to eligible employees through March 21, 2021, and seek corresponding tax credits.
The Biden administration is moving quickly as it focuses on employee protections and employers should be prepared for the measures most likely to arise, particularly in regard to COVID-19 safety. Consult with your employment law attorney to ensure that your business is in compliance and has sufficient resources to handle forthcoming requirements. As always, we are happy to help.