U.S. construction groups are at odds with the government’s worker vaccination strategy.
The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), the American Road and Transportation Builders Association and the Signatory Wall and Ceiling Contractors Alliance are taking safety regulators to court over COVID-19 rules they say won’t work and reach beyond statutory authority.
New standards from the Occupational Health and Safety Agency (OSHA) set to go into effect in January would require construction companies with 100 or more employees to be fully vaccinated or get tested every week. President Joe Biden has also issued an executive order mandating all workers on federal projects be vaccinated with no option for testing.
“The top line, most important thing we are saying is that we are huge proponents of the Coronavirus vaccines and have spent a lot of time working to encourage construction workers in the U.S. to get those shots,” said Brian Turmail, vice-president of public affairs and strategic initiatives with the AGC.
The group is currently in the midst of a major campaign that features public service announcements where former anti-vax construction workers give harrowing accounts of barely surviving the virus and encourage others to get vaccinated.
Turmail said the AGC believes OSHA and the government’s time and effort is better spent on campaigns like that. He explained the new rules will essentially create three uneven standards that put those working on federal projects and those with more than 100 employees at a significant competitive disadvantage.
“We are all-in trying to get everyone vaccinated and we have got a large number of member firms that have chosen to mandate vaccines for their workers and even the subcontractors they work with,” he added.
Turmail noted roughly 64 per cent of all jobs in the construction industry are with smaller companies. He believes with nearly 90 per cent of construction firms reporting they are having a hard time filling positions, and many other sectors eager for workers, many vaccine-hesitant workers will leave for smaller companies not covered by the OSHA mandate.
The groups also argue the rules are not lawful. The associations’ petition, which was filed this month in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, states OSHA exceeded its statutory authority to promulgate an Emergency Temporary Standard, and otherwise failed to comply with the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
“We have two mandates that are not going to do a lot to get people vaccinated but are going to do a lot to put the firms covered by them at a great competitive disadvantage,” said Turmail.
“We think OSHA would be better off spending their time working with us to encourage more people to get vaccinated, like helping us push out our public service ads.”
Turmail says construction has one of the lowest vaccination rates of any sector of the U.S. workforce which is why AGC has invested time, energy and money into vaccination encouragement efforts.
From AGC’s conversations with vaccine-hesitant workers, many believe COVID-19 is no more dangerous than the flu and that they are too tough for it to hurt them. They also cited rumours the vaccine has health risks.
“They think they are invincible,” said Turmail. “We know we have a lot more work to do and this is the fastest way to get back to something approximating normal business operations.”
The Centre for Construction Research and Training also suggests high rates of vaccination hesitancy among construction workers, with their latest data showing about 43 per cent are hesitant to get vaccinated. All other occupations hover around 17 per cent. The top two reasons cited were distrust of the government or vaccine side effects.