US Federal Labor ViewpointsThis is a weekly post spotlighting labor topics in focus by the US legislative and executive branches during the previous week.

In this issue, we cover:

  • Federal Vaccine Mandate Legal Challenges Update
  • Notable Labor Department Developments
  • COVID-19 Updates

While both chambers of the U.S. Congress were in recess this week, the first session of the 117th Congress is set to adjourn officially at the end of the month.  Lawmakers will return to Washington for the second session of the 117th Congress when it convenes on January 3, 2022.

Federal Vaccine Mandate Legal Challenges Update.  After the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit overturned the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) vaccine-or-test Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) stay in a 2-1 decision late last Friday, OSHA posted quickly new compliance dates on its ETS website.  Employers with 100 or more employees must now comply with the provisions of the ETS by January 10, 2022.  If an employer allows employees to test instead, then unvaccinated employees must begin regular testing on or before February 9, 2022, if in the workplace.

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court scheduled expedited arguments on the Sixth Circuit Court’s decision to lift the Fifth Circuit’s stay of the OSHA ETS.  The Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments from petitioners and OSHA on January 7, 2022, just three days before OSHA is set to begin enforcement of the ETS.  The Court will also hear oral arguments on a stay of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) Vaccine Mandate for health care workers that participate in the Medicare and Medicaid government programs.

On December 22, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki issued a statement on the Supreme Court’s special hearing.  She said of the Biden Administration’s position:

We are confident in the legal authority for both policies and DOJ [the U.S. Department of Justice] will vigorously defend both at the Supreme Court.”

Notable Labor Department Developments.  On December 20, the U.S. Department of Labor awarded an $8 million grant to support La Isla Network’s efforts to improve workplace safety and health in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.  The focus will be workplace illnesses, injuries, chronic kidney disease of non-traditional causes and COVID-19 in the agricultural sectors of all three countries and in El Salvador’s textile industry.

Also on December 20, the Labor Department awarded $5 million in a cooperative agreement to the American Center for International Labor Solidarity to improve workers’ rights in agricultural supply chains in Honduras and Guatemala, and the garment sector in El Salvador.  The project will prioritize underserved communities and focus on gender and racial equity to address the systemic violation of internationally recognized workers’ rights in the agricultural and garment – or “maquila” – sectors.

On December 21, the Labor Department awarded $5 million in a cooperative agreement to Social Accountability International to focus on preventing and reducing forced labor and child labor abuses in the Malaysian palm oil and garment industries.  The funding will support a project working with trade unions, civil organizations, migrant worker community leaders, government labor inspectors and recruitment agencies to raise awareness of the root causes of forced labor and child labor abuses in these industries in Malaysia.

On December 23, the Labor Department awarded $5 million in a cooperative agreement for the International Labour Organization to focus on strengthening decent working conditions in Peru and Ecuador by combating illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in coastal communities.  Illegal fishing is estimated to account for 15 percent of world fisheries’ annual production (or approximately 26 million tons of fish per year).

COVID-19 Updates.  South African scientists reported this week that the country passed the peak of the Omicron variant cases, about three weeks after the first cases were detected.  Data from South Africa appears to indicate fewer hospitalizations and instances of severe side effects overall in comparison to previous coronavirus variants.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky confirmed on Wednesday that the Omicron variant has overtaken as the dominant COVID-19 strain, accounting for 90 percent of confirmed cases, in most parts of the United States.  U.S. officials have cautioned that differences in demographics and other factors does not necessarily mean the U.S. will see a similar trajectory of cases or lowered hospitalizations and severe side effects as seen in South Africa.  U.S. officials are also closely tracking data from the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and New York.  All of these areas are seeing massive rises in Omicron cases and have a higher vaccinated population rate than South Africa.

On December 22, U.S. President Joe Biden addressed the nation, acknowledging Americans are frustrated with the latest surge of Omicron cases and some restrictions snapping back into place.  He announced the U.S. Government is set to buy 500,000 at-home COVID test kits and mail them to people who want them, with deliveries beginning in January.  He shared the Administration would establish a website in January where people can order free at-home tests.  President Biden also urged Americans to get vaccinated and boosted, noting that former President Donald Trump had recently received his COVID-19 booster shot.  The President also said the Federal Government is standing up new pop-up vaccination clinics across the country.

Separately, on December 22, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) approved emergency use authorization (EUA) for Pfizer’s Paxlovid for use in those over the age of 12.  The next day, the FDA approved EUA for Merck/Ridgeback’s antiviral pill for COVID-19, molnupiravir, for patients 18 years and older, noting it could affect bone and cartilage growth.   Merck is set to ship hundreds of thousands of treatment courses in coming days and one million over the next few weeks.  Pfizer plans to ship about 250,000 courses to the United States in January.