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Labor Secretary Marty Walsh is trying to preempt criticism of an impending private-sector vaccine mandate with a simple message: This is about employment growth, not burdens.
“The intention is not to put a burden on businesses; the intention is to get people vaccinated” and to ensure continued “opportunities for employment,” said Walsh, in an exclusive interview that was part of Bloomberg Government’s Hill Watch event Thursday.
“Certainly, we’re going to be very open to any concerns our businesses or individuals have as we move forward here,” said Walsh, head of the U.S. Department of Labor, which is spearheading the vaccine rule. “I think that a lot of people [are] speculating what this rule is, and we really can’t speculate. When the rule comes out, I think a lot of people will be encouraged by it.”
Walsh spoke Oct. 7, the week before DOL’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration advanced the regulation to the White House for final review, the final step before public release.
The measure will implement President Joe Biden‘s Sept. 9 order for a regulation requiring businesses with at least 100 employees to mandate workers get fully vaccinated or be tested weekly for Covid-19. Biden also asked for the rule to provide paid time off for workers to get vaccinated and to recover from any side effects.
That directive has placed Walsh and his department at the center of fierce opposition from GOP state officials. Businesses generally have supported the mandate, but flooded OSHA with questions and recommendations about anticipated compliance complications.
Walsh’s optimism also extended to the state of high-stakes negotiations on Capitol Hill over a reconciliation package that accounts for much of the Biden administration’s domestic agenda. Democrats have proposed provisions that would directly affect DOL’s agenda, but the caucus is trimming the topline number to appease moderates.
Asked about his pitch to Congress to keep his agency’s priorities in the package, Walsh said he’s in a “favorable position,” because there’s bipartisan support to fund DOL-administered workforce development and apprenticeship programs.
Walsh made it clear that he won’t be rushing to weigh in on what may be the biggest issue before his department: whether to treat gig-economy workers as employees who are entitled to workplace protections, or independent contractors, who are mostly exempted.
“Maybe I will be criticized a bit, but it’s important to take time, and if something is to happen, get it right, and then also have justification for it,” Walsh said.
He’s been meeting with app-based companies, such as Uber Technologies Inc., Lyft Inc., and DoorDash Inc., as well as their drivers—some of whom want to be labeled as employees, while others prefer the flexibility of contractor status.
“We’re going to continue these dialogues. These are potentially very big decisions,” Walsh said. “And I take my role as secretary of labor very seriously.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org