Who pays and how much?
Those are among the lingering questions about President Joe Biden’s new rules requiring that many employers test their workers for COVID-19 weekly if they decline his vaccination mandate.
This much we know: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules announced on Thursday – which cover an estimated 84 million people – don’t require employers to pay for the tests.
The upshot is that Americans who refuse to be vaccinated could be forced to pay the tab for their weekly screenings.
The presidential mandate comes as the U.S. economy is going through a “Great Resignation,” a record 4.3 million workers quitting their jobs in August for myriad COVID-19-related reasons.
Lauren Winans, CEO of Pittsburgh-based human resources consultancy Next Level Benefits, said she expects many employers to offer testing in hopes of avoiding an exodus of workers who refuse to get vaccinated.
“Businesses are not going to want the infrastructure of the workforce to collapse,” she said. “So they’re going to want to have more than one option.”
What you need to know:20 questions, answers on the new COVID-19 vaccine rules for workers
Here’s what you need to know about how the COVID testing alternative to vaccination could play out:
How much will the COVID tests cost?
That could vary widely depending on the type of test and the location.
Rapid tests cost in the range of $15 to $25. But the median cost of more-likely-to-be-accurate PCR tests is $127, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
The Cleveland Clinic, for example, pays no less than $125.
Will employers pick up the tab?
Winans said she expects employers in industries facing labor shortages, such as tourism, retail and restaurants, to embrace the testing alternative – and to pay for it, too.
“I think they’re going to have no choice eventually but to cover the cost,” she said.
Some employers, hoping to avoid the costs of COVID tests, may start out by requiring workers to pay for them, Winans predicted.
They want to “see how many people are now going to get the vaccine” if they have to pay for their tests, she said. But she added, “They’ll ultimately have to foot the bill.”
Some state laws may require employers to pick up the bill, said Steven Schinderle, principal in the regulatory resources group of Mercer, a New York-based employee benefits consultancy.
“In that case, employees may be required to pay for the tests as well as the face coverings required,” Schinderle said.
Will health insurance cover the cost?
“That’s usually only paid for if medically necessary,” said Schinderle, who specializes in compliance issues.
Which means the employer or employee is “going to have to pay for this out of pocket,” he said.
Will unionized workers be required to pay for COVID tests?
Certain union contracts may dictate whether workers can be required to pay.
“Those unions may demand that the tests be paid for” even if it’s not in their contract, Winans said.
That could subject the matter to further collective bargaining.
When and where will the tests take place?
For hourly workers subject to federal labor standards, they’re likely “going to have to be on the clock” when they get tested, Winans said.
Salaried workers may have to get tested on their own time, she said. But some may be able to do so at the office, where certain employers are expected to provide testing.
“I think a lot of large employers are going to come up with a solution where they’re going to test on site,” Winans said.
But on-site testing is likely to be too expensive or unrealistic for many companies.
“For the smaller employers,’ Schinderle said, “That is going to be more cost-prohibitive, and they may have to just partner with a third-party to get that done, set up a clinic possibly with a public health department or health care provider or lab testing facility, similar to how they partner for wellness programs with biometric screenings.”
Could testing change the workday?
Yes. Employers may try to prevent COVID testing from affecting the workday, but they may not be successful, in which case testing could make workers unavailable for a period of time.
For example, workers may need to sit in a waiting room until their test results come back.
“There’s a lot stacked against us,” Winans said, posing the risk that “productivity is going to slow.”
Can employees do a rapid test at home and bring the test results to work?
OHSA rules require that the “employer observes the test and the results” or that “the test is proctored by someone like a third party,” Schinderle said. “The employee is not permitted to self-administer or self-read the test result.”
Will remote workers be subject to testing if that alternative is provided?
The federal mandate to be vaccinated or tested weekly does not apply to employees who work remotely 100% of the time or who work exclusively outdoors, Schinderle said.
But if you have to come to the office periodically? Yes, you’ll need to be tested weekly.
“Anyone who wants to come into the employer’s workplace as well as employees working offsite with other individuals such as coworkers or customers are going to be subject to” the mandate, Schinderle said.
How much could employers be fined if they don’t comply?
OHSA can penalize employers up to $13,653 per incidence of noncompliance after an investigation.
But that could escalate 10-fold if a business is deemed to be willfully or repeatedly non-compliant.
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