Commentary: COVID-19 vaccines work, government vaccine mandates may not
Greg Sizemore, VP of health, safety, environment and workforce development, ABC
Courtesy of ABC

Commentary: COVID-19 vaccines work, government vaccine mandates may not

ABC’s Greg Sizemore says the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates may have unintended consequences for the construction industry.

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October 7, 2021

COVID-19 has worn out its welcome across the globe, crossing the grim milestone of 700,000 lives lost, and humanity is more than ready to move to a post-pandemic life. Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) recognizes that a crucial way to put this virus behind us, and to ensure healthy and safe work environments, is vaccinations.

Because healthy and safe work environments are a top priority for ABC and its members, ABC encourages its members and construction industry stakeholders to get vaccinated. In fact, a number of ABC chapters and member companies have organized and promoted educational campaigns and COVID-19 vaccination drives to accelerate the voluntary vaccination of industry stakeholders and employees. Since March 2020, ABC has created resources and toolkits for construction industry employers and employees to help reduce the risk of exposure to the virus.

ABC will continue to encourage COVID-19 vaccinations and other workplace health and safety standards, but we are concerned about the Biden administration’s announcement of two new COVID-19 vaccine policies affecting private employers of 100 more or employees and federal contractors. While the details of both policies have not been formally released, in general, ABC is philosophically opposed to federal mandates that make compliance by the regulated community impractical—if not impossible—and undermine the desired policy outcome.

Based on what we do know about the Biden administration’s new COVID-19 vaccine policies, they will have far-reaching practical implications for employers, employees and construction industry stakeholders that need to be thoroughly evaluated.

As with most industries, COVID-19 has created and accelerated a host of challenges currently facing the construction industry, which includes a skilled workforce shortage, rising material costs, supply chain disruptions, massive liquidity, wavering confidence, job site shutdowns, additional health and safety protocols and new government regulations. Many industry stakeholders look at these forthcoming vaccine rules as yet another risk and obstacle to overcome while rebuilding America’s infrastructure and communities.

The new COVID-19 vaccine policies are part of President Biden’s sweeping six-part action plan to combat the spread of COVID-19. The plan requires all employers with 100 or more employees to ensure their workers are vaccinated or tested weekly and to provide paid time off for the time it takes workers to get vaccinated or to recover if they are under the weather post-vaccination. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is currently developing an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) to implement these requirements. While OSHA has not released the details of the ETS, the agency has indicated it will be issued in the coming weeks.

The construction industry has been on the forefront of efforts to protect construction employees from the virus from the outset of the pandemic. In addition, the construction industry is classified as low risk for COVID-19 by OSHA.

As a steering committee member of the Construction Industry Safety Coalition, ABC sent a letter to James Frederick, acting assistant secretary of OSHA, voicing concerns on what is expected to be the most far-reaching standard ever issued by the agency.

The concerns listed in the letter include the industry’s ongoing workforce shortage, employee and employer obligations for vaccinations and testing, paperwork burdens, recordability of adverse reactions to the vaccine, cost of PTO for vaccinations and adverse reactions, and availability of testing kits.

In addition, President Biden signed Executive Order 14042, “Ensuring Adequate COVID Safety Protocols for Federal Contractors,” and, as directed by the order, the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force issued guidance that requires vaccination of covered federal contractor employees, except in limited circumstances where an employee is legally entitled to an accommodation. 

Prior to the release of the Sept. 24 guidance, ABC sent a letter to the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, the Office of Management and Budget and the task force on behalf of its federal contractor members with practical feedback on the executive order, which included 25 questions asked by the federal contracting community since the order’s release on Sept. 9.

For the contracting community, the task force guidance will likely result in additional compliance burdens, exacerbate the construction industry’s skilled workforce shortage and increase costs for federal contractors and taxpayers.

ABC plans to be fully engaged in the forthcoming OSHA ETS rule applying to all employers with 100 or more employees and the Federal Acquisition Regulatory Council’s rulemaking related to federal contractors. The Biden administration must ensure it fully considers all of the difficult issues involved in implementing both of these overreaching mandates as they go through the final rulemaking process.

Greg Sizemore is the vice president of health, safety, environment and workforce development at Associated Builders and Contractors.