A big job for a small government agency. Apply the vaccine rule for 80 million workers

In early September, just before President Biden ordered 80 million workers to get vaccinated or undergo regular testing, a question went viral on the internet.

“Would you report all of your unvaccinated colleagues for $200,000?” asked @RevampedCP on Twitter.

the answers came quickly.

I would report my co-workers for a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. And not even a party bag.

I would flag them to leave work five minutes early. I would flag them to get out of work two minutes early.

I would point them out for a basket of Shake Shack fries.

I would report them for free.

‘I didn’t expect this,’ says Arianny Mercedes, a career strategist and public policy student at the University of Virginia, who fled the original tweet as she contemplated how far people would be willing to go to get back to “normal.”

The question became all the more relevant a day after his tweet, when President Biden ordered workers at companies with 100 or more employees to get vaccinated or undergo regular testing. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency responsible for overseeing workplace safety, is still working out the details but is expected to issue a rule later this fall.

And then comes the challenge of applying OSHA, which brings us back to the issue of colleagues.

Given the agency’s small size and chronic understaffing, the idea of ​​reporting someone in your office isn’t actually that far off the mark.

Employee complaints are an important part of enforcement given the few inspectors the government has, says Rich Fairfax, a safety consultant with the National Safety Council who spent 36 years at OSHA, including as a as responsible for the application.

According to OSHAthere are approximately 1,850 federal and state inspectors covering some 8 million job sites nationwide.

“So you can do the math,” Fairfax says. “They clearly can’t get into everyone.”

Animal rights activists demonstrate outside the Occupational Safety and Health Administration building in Los Angeles, California on March 12, 2021, calling on OSHA to do more to protect slaughterhouse workers from COVID-19. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

As well as responding to complaints, Fairfax believes inspectors will simply add Covid-related tasks to their to-do lists – looking to see if a company is keeping vaccination records and running a testing program – when they are already on the job. workplace to verify safety risks or incidents.

Fines for a serious violation can be up to $13,653 per violation, or ten times more for a willful or repeated violation.

Still, the press releases that accompany OSHA fines often have a bigger impact than the fines themselves, says Jordan Barab, who served as OSHA’s head under President Obama.

“Employers have told us that OSHA penalties are…really just part of doing business,” he says. What companies really don’t like is their name making headlines in a negative light.

Barab thinks the vast majority of businesses will comply with the federal vaccine rule once it rolls out, but nonetheless, it’s a big moment for OSHA.

“They’ve been kind of a small agency that nobody noticed much, and all of a sudden they’re thrust into the spotlight with a hugely controversial policy,” he says.

It’s a policy the government hopes will soon be less controversial, now that more workers are getting vaccinated and vaccination mandates are reporting success.

Copyright NPR 2022.