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A big job for small government agency. Enforce vaccine rule for 80 million workers

Oct 3, 2021
Originally published on November 12, 2021 5:37 am

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 y'all report your unvaccinated co-worker(s) for $200K?" asked @RevampedCP on Twitter.

The responses came quickly.

I would report my coworkers for a bag of Flamin' Hot Cheetos. And not even a party size bag.

I'd report them to get out of work five minutes early. I'd report them to get out of work two minutes early.

I'd report them for a basket of Shake Shack fries.

I'd report them for free.

"I was not expecting this," says Arianny Mercedes, the career strategist and public policy student at the University of Virginia who dashed off 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 her 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 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 OSHA enforcement, which brings us back to the question about co-workers.

Given how small and chronically understaffed the agency is, the idea of snitching on someone in your office is actually not that far from reality.

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

According to OSHA, there are about 1,850 federal and state inspectors covering some 8 million worksites nationwide.

"So you can do the math," Fairfax says. "They clearly can't go into every one."

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

In addition to responding to complaints, Fairfax thinks 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're already inside the workplace checking up on safety hazards or incidents.

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

Still, the press releases that accompany OSHA fines often have a larger impact than the fines themselves, says Jordan Barab, who was acting head of OSHA under President Obama.

"Employers told us OSHA penalties are... really just a part of doing business," he says. What companies really don't like is having their name in the news in a negative light.

Barab believes the vast majority of companies will comply with the federal vaccine rule once it's rolled out, but nevertheless, it's a big moment for OSHA.

"They've been kind of this small agency that nobody noticed much, and suddenly they're thrown into the spotlight with an extremely controversial policy," he says.

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

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

President Biden has ordered 80 million workers in America to get vaccinated or undergo regular COVID testing. The fine print is yet to be worked out. But when that happens, a very small government agency will be in charge of enforcing the rules. NPR's Andrea Hsu has more.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: About a month ago, a question went viral on the internet. It started on Twitter and then migrated to TikTok.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Would you ever report your unvaccinated co-workers for $200,000?

HSU: That was the question. Would you report your unvaccinated coworkers for an insane amount of money? Well, here were some of the answers.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I would report my co-workers for a bag of Flamin' Hot Cheetos.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I would report them to get out of work five minutes early. I'd report them to get out of work two minutes early.

HSU: Others said they'd do it for a basket of Shake Shack fries, a tangled up slinky.

ARIANNY MERCEDES: I'd do it for free. I'd do it for a Starbucks gift card. I'd do it for a trip to Target. I was not expecting this.

HSU: That's Arianny Mercedes, who came up with the original post. She's a public policy major at the University of Virginia. And she has a career-consulting business on the side.

As entertaining as those responses are, the idea of snitching on co-workers is not actually that far from reality. Workers do have a role to play in enforcing workplace rules.

RICH FAIRFAX: If an employee files a complaint and if they allege a serious hazard, then OSHA wants to get out there as soon as possible.

HSU: Rich Fairfax is a safety consultant who's spent more than three decades at OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It's the federal agency that sets workplace safety rules and enforces them. He says employees' eyes and ears are crucial because OSHA simply does not have enough inspectors. Nationwide, there are fewer than 2,000 federal and state inspectors.

FAIRFAX: And there's - what? - 8 or 9 million workplaces. So you can do the math.

HSU: It would be impossible for them to enter every workplace. So in addition to responding to complaints, Fairfax thinks OSHA will just add COVID-related items to inspectors' to-do lists when they're out doing what they normally do - checking up on safety hazards or following up after an incident.

FAIRFAX: You know, I think all the OSHA inspectors will be directed to look into the vaccination status and see what the employer has done.

HSU: And if a violation is discovered - say, there are no vaccination records on file or no testing programs set up - well, OSHA can issue a fine, up to $13,600-some dollars for a serious violation - 10 times that for a willful or repeated violation. But more than the threat of fines, Jordan Barab says it's the threat of bad publicity that gets employers to comply. He was acting head of OSHA under President Obama.

JORDAN BARAB: Actually, employers told us, you know, OSHA penalties are generally not very much. They're really just a part of doing business. What we really don't like is having our names in the press.

HSU: OSHA issues stern press releases when they discover a company is violating safety rules. Imagine what that might look like. Such-and-such a business fails to keep its workers safe from COVID-19. Not a good look when the whole country is trying to get past the pandemic. Barab believes the vast majority of companies will comply with the federal vaccine rule once it's rolled out. But still, he says, this is a big moment for OSHA.

BARAB: You know, they've been kind of this small agency that nobody noticed much. And suddenly, they're thrown into the spotlight with an extremely controversial policy.

HSU: A policy they hope will soon be less controversial given how many workers have now gotten the shots. Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "NATURAL CAUSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.