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Biden Took A Tougher Stance Against People Resisting The Vaccine In Speech

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

More workers are going to have to get vaccinated for COVID-19. That's what President Biden just announced. This afternoon, he took a decidedly tougher stance against people who have been resisting getting the shots, saying he wants to protect the majority of Americans from the 80 million people that he is blaming for prolonging the pandemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We've been patient. But our patience is wearing thin. And your refusal has cost all of us. So please, do the right thing.

DETROW: The administration's new rules will affect people who work in the private sector, as well as federal employees. And here to walk us through this news, we have NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith and NPR labor and workplace correspondent Andrea Hsu.

Hello to both of you.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hello.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Hi.

DETROW: So Tam, I'm going to start with you. What were the highlights from the speech today?

KEITH: The biggest headline is that the White House is moving from persuasion to mandates. The president until now has tried to convince people to get the shot, offering incentives, trying to answer people's questions about vaccines. But today, he said he's lost his patience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Despite America having unprecedented and successful vaccination program, despite the fact that for almost five months, free vaccines have been available in 80,000 different locations, we still have nearly 80 million Americans who have failed to get the shot.

KEITH: And so the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, is going to issue an emergency order saying that private employers with 100 or more employees will have to require their employees to get vaccinated or to have weekly tests. This will affect more than 80 million workers. As the president said, the idea is to protect vaccinated workers from their unvaccinated co-workers. Federal workers and contractors will no longer have the option to skip the vaccine and get tested instead. With very limited exceptions, vaccines will now be required for the federal workforce. And the federal government is the country's largest employer. But it is unlikely that the Biden administration's workplace mandate is going to go down entirely smoothly. Republican members of Congress are already calling it authoritarian.

DETROW: And I just want to underscore what you're reporting, Tam. This affects millions of private employers or rather millions of private employees are going to be affected by this. Does the federal government have this power?

KEITH: It does. I spoke with Brett Coburn, a labor and employment attorney in Atlanta. He said companies do take orders from OSHA like this seriously.

BRETT COBURN: I'm sure there will be a lot of employers who chafe at this for a variety of reasons. But some employers, I think, may welcome it - right? - because it kind of takes it out of their hands to some extent, to say sorry, OSHA said we have to do this, and we have to follow what OSHA tells us. The CDC gives us guidelines. OSHA gives us rules, right? And that's a really important distinction.

KEITH: And OSHA's mission is about workplace safety. There are other employees in other sectors that will be affected by today's announcements. About 17 million people who work in hospitals and clinics and home health care workers will need to be vaccinated, as well as staff who work in federal Head Start programs and schools on military bases.

DETROW: And Andrea, let me bring you in here. Some employers already do require their workers to be vaccinated. That's something President Biden has encouraged for months now. How has that worked so far in practice?

HSU: Well, mandates appear to have had a pretty big difference at at least two large companies - United Airlines and Tyson Foods, the meat and poultry company. You know, both announced vaccine mandates back in early August. And since then, both say about half of those who were not yet vaccinated then have gone ahead and gotten vaccinated. And the deadlines they've set are still to come, so those numbers may yet grow. Now we should note, these two companies - Tyson and United Airlines - are not offering their employees an option to get tested in lieu of vaccination. As we said, under the new Biden rule, employees at private companies will have that option, and I imagine a lot will choose that, which could end up being very expensive.

DETROW: It's such a weird and delicate economy right now, right? You know, millions of people out of work - at the same time, so many employers say they can't find employees. Do we have any sense of how these new requirements could affect that?

HSU: Well, this could be a game-changer for the economy. You know, the economy took a huge hit from the delta variant this summer. Job growth slowed tremendously last month. Southwest Airlines warned that bookings have fallen. Airbnb says they've seen a dip in demand as well. All this shows that things are not back to normal.

A vaccine requirement in workplaces could ease the fears of some workers who have been afraid to go to work and to go into a workplace, maybe because they're immunocompromised or they have young children at home who can't be vaccinated yet. At the same time, like you said, there is the risk that this could make it even harder for employers to find workers. You know, all summer we've been talking to businesses from factories to hotels to restaurants. They're telling us they can't find enough people to fill their shifts. And an economist with the jobs site Indeed found searches for jobs that don't require vaccinations have grown tremendously month over month.

DETROW: That's interesting. But what are the challenges for such a broad vaccine requirement, though?

HSU: Yeah, this is a pretty radical move. You know, as Tam mentioned, it affects some 80 million people, a majority of American workers. So for sure we're going to hear some pushback. Some states, you know, have already banned vaccine mandates. But it's also important to look at how Biden is imposing this vaccine requirement. As Tam mentioned, he's having OSHA - you know, the federal agency in charge of worker safety - issue an emergency rule. It takes effect immediately, but it's temporary, and it can be challenged in court. It has to go through all the usual rulemaking process to become permanent, and that can be onerous. And in any event, I expect there will be challenges.

DETROW: And Tam, I'm going to go back to you because this is a high-stakes political moment for the Biden administration, isn't it? He had run and tried to govern on getting COVID under control, and here we are.

KEITH: And here we are. And in fact, it has been a very bad august for President Biden. Polls show Americans starting to question him. The NPR-PBS NewsHour Marist Poll found approval for Biden's handling of the pandemic fell nine points in just the month of August. So the White House is trying to show here that they have a plan.

In terms of this shift in his approach to talking about people who are unvaccinated, you know, if you think about it, the 19% or so of adults who say they won't get vaccinated probably stopped listening to President Biden a long time ago...

DETROW: Yeah.

KEITH: ...If they ever did. So this was a speech aimed at his political base, who is frustrated and angry and has been fully vaccinated for months.

DETROW: Yeah. That's NPR's Tamara Keith and Andrea Hsu.

Thanks to both of you.

KEITH: You're welcome.

HSU: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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