President Joe Biden may be disappointed with the impact of his federal vaccine mandate thanks to former President Donald Trump gutting the federal agency that now needs to enforce it.
Biden has tasked the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) with forcing companies with more than 100 employees to ensure that their workers are either vaccinated against COVID-19 or be tested weekly for the virus. While the order is facing numerous challenges in court, OSHA may struggle to enforce it regardless thanks to the agency hemorrhaging staff and funding under the Trump administration.
Former President Barack Obama’s administration worked to beef up OSHA’s regulatory authority, but the Trump administration rolled back those reforms and then pushed the agency even further back under its more general policy of “heavy deregulation.” (RELATED: Former FDA Chief Says Biden Went Too Far With Vaccine Mandate And Made Jabs ‘Overtly Political’)
“It’s always been true with OSHA that, especially relative to other government agencies, it’s just woefully understaffed,” professor Matthew Johnson, a labor economist at Duke University, told Business Insider. “From the outset, they’ve been kind of under-resourced both in terms of their manpower, in terms of the inspectors, and they’ve also always been very limited in the size of penalties that the agency can levy on employers they catch violating the law.”
Trump also drastically cut back on the number of OSHA inspectors before leaving office, and Biden is now pushing to double their number. The current president faces an uphill battle to do so amid the pandemic, however, as few qualified candidates are interested in the role. Even if he is successful, OSHA would still have just over 3,000 inspectors tasked with enforcing a vaccine mandate that affects 80 million U.S. workers. As it stands, agency employs 1,798 inspectors.
“Over the four years of that administration, they just let OSHA shrink and shrink and shrink by attrition, never filling any of the slots that were open for hiring,” Judy Conti, a Trump critic and government-affairs director at the National Employment Law Project, told Insider. “And the enforcement that they did was fairly pitiful. So this Department of Labor had a lot to catch up on and a lot of making up to do.”
Aside from the worker shortage, OSHA will also likely struggle to effectively penalize companies that are flouting Biden’s mandate. Typical fines from OSHA range in the tens of thousands of dollars and face months of court battles before being paid, if they are paid at all, according to Insider.