Tens of millions of people in the United States who work at companies with 100 or more employees will need to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by January 4 or get tested for the virus weekly under newly-issued government rules.
The new requirements, which were first previewed by US President Joe Biden in September, will apply to about 84 million workers at medium and large businesses although it is not clear how many of those employees are unvaccinated.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations will force the companies to require that unvaccinated workers test negative for COVID-19 at least once a week and wear a mask while in the workplace.
OSHA left open the possibility of expanding the requirement to smaller businesses.
It asked for public comment on whether employers with fewer than 100 employees could handle vaccination or testing programs.
Tougher rules will apply to another 17 million people who work in nursing homes, hospitals and other facilities that receive money from Medicare and Medicaid.
Those workers will not have an option for testing – they will need to be vaccinated.
Workers will be able to ask for exemptions on medical or religious grounds.
Biden framed the issue as a simple choice between getting more people vaccinated or prolonging the pandemic.
“While I would have much preferred that requirements not become necessary, too many people remain unvaccinated for us to get out of this pandemic for good,” he said on Thursday in a statement.
Biden said his encouragement for businesses to impose mandates and his own previous requirements for the the military and federal contractors have helped reduce the number of unvaccinated people in the US over the age of 12 from 100 million in late July to about 60 million now.
Those measures, he said, have not led to mass firings or worker shortages, adding that vaccines have been required before to fight other diseases.
OSHA said companies that fail to comply with the regulations could face penalties of nearly $US14,000 ($A18,876) per violation.
It was unclear how OSHA planned to enforce the rules: even counting allied regulators at the state level, the agency has only 1850 inspectors to oversee 130 million workers at eight million workplaces.
The regulations form the cornerstone of Biden’s most aggressive effort yet to combat the spread of COVID-19, which has killed more than 740,000 people in the US.
Senior administration officials said the rules pre-empt conflicting state laws or orders, including those that ban employers from requiring vaccinations, testing or the wearing of face masks.
More than two dozen Republicans serving as state attorneys general have indicated they plan to sue, arguing that only Congress can enact such sweeping requirements under emergency authority.
The rules will require workers to receive either two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine by January 4 or be tested weekly.
Employees who test positive must be removed from the workplace.
The requirements will not apply to people who work at home or outdoors.
Some companies have expressed fear that some vaccine-hesitant workers might quit, leaving their workforces even thinner in what is already a tight labour market.
Retailers and others also said it could worsen supply chain disruptions.
The National Retail Federation suggested that the new rules are not needed because the rolling average number of new daily cases in the US has fallen by more than half since September.
The earlier mandate on federal contractors led to demonstrations by opponents, including workers at a NASA rocket engine test site in Mississippi.
Some said they are immune because they contracted COVID-19.
Others said vaccines violated their religious beliefs and constitutional rights.
“No one should be forced to take a medical treatment just to keep their job,” said Nyla Trumbach, an engineer at the site.
“There’s years and years of experience and skill out here, and I just want anyone who’s watching to see what we stand to lose here if these people don’t keep their jobs.”