WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday blocked the Biden administration from enforcing a vaccination or testing mandate for large employers, dealing a blow to a key element of the White House’s plan to combat the pandemic as coronavirus cases surged as a result of the Omicron Variant, the ascent.
But in a modest victory for President Biden, the court allowed a more limited mandate requiring health workers at facilities receiving federal funds to be vaccinated.
The vote in the Employers’ Mandate case was 6 to 3, with the Liberal judges dissenting. The vote in the health case was 5 to 4, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh joining the Liberal justices to form a majority.
The employers’ decision undermined one of President Biden’s most significant attempts to tame the virus, leaving the country with a patchwork of state laws and policies, leaving businesses and businesses largely to their own devices.
The President welcomed the ruling in his favor, saying in a statement it would save the lives of healthcare workers and patients. But he said he was disappointed that the court overturned the employers’ mandate, which he said was “based on both science and the law”.
In both the employers’ and health workers’ cases, the judges examined whether Congress had authorized the executive branch to take sweeping action to address the health crisis.
The unsigned majority opinion in the employers’ case said a workplace hazards law did not warrant a mandate that would have required more than 80 million workers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or to wear masks and be tested weekly. It also emphasized the novelty and scope of the mandate issued by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), saying Congress had not authorized the agency to act, describing its response as “a blunt instrument.”
The mandate “makes no distinctions by industry or risk of exposure to Covid-19,” according to the majority opinion, adding it is “a significant intrusion into the lives – and health – of a large number of employees”.
But the opinion says more tailored regulations could be legitimate as “most lifeguards and linemen are subject to the same regulations as medics and meat packers”.
In a dissenting opinion, Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan expressed disbelief at the court’s willingness to “frustrate the federal government’s ability to counter the unprecedented threat that Covid-19 poses to our nation’s workers.” .
Regulating workplace safety, the three dissenting judges wrote, is exactly what OSHA is supposed to do.
They agreed that the central issue in this case was the institutional capacity to deal with the health crisis.
“Underlying everything else in this dispute,” they wrote, “is a single, simple question: Who decides how much and what kind of protection American workers need from Covid-19? An agency with occupational health and safety expertise acting on behalf of Congress and the President? Or a court that lacks any knowledge of how to secure jobs and is insulated from responsibility for any damage it causes?”
The wiser course, they wrote, would have been to bow to OSHA.
“With the pandemic still raging, this court is advising the agency charged with protecting worker safety that it may not do so in all required workplaces,” wrote dissenters of the majority’s actions in the case, National Federation of Independent Business v. Department of Labor, No. 21A244. “As sickness and death continue to rise, this court is telling the agency it cannot respond as effectively as possible.”
OSHA granted the mandate in November, making exceptions for workers with religious objections and those who don’t come into close contact with other people at work. The government estimated that this would vaccinate 22 million people and prevent 250,000 hospital admissions.
The ruling means companies across the country must now decide whether to protect employees, potentially losing employees who resist compliance and violating patchwork regulations.
Several large companies such as United Airlines and Tyson Foods already have mandates, while others have held back waiting for litigation to be resolved. Some companies fear losing employees when labor is already in short supply. While companies with mandates have said that these concerns have largely not materialised, a national requirement could have helped allay these concerns.
Walmart, Amazon and JPMorgan Chase, three of the largest employers in the United States, have yet to set comprehensive requirements for their workers. Some companies that have waited have raised concerns about the cost of setting up testing programs and turning away unvaccinated workers.
This second mandate applies to workers in hospitals and other healthcare facilities participating in the Medicare and Medicaid programs.
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Federal judges in Missouri and Louisiana had blocked the requirement, which provides exceptions for people with medical or religious objections, in rulings valid in about half of the states. It is now in force nationwide.
In an unsigned statement in Biden v. Missouri, No. 21A240, the majority wrote that the health care mandate given by the Secretary of Health and Human Services “falls within the powers conferred upon him by Congress.”
Current law gives the secretary general authority to make regulations to ensure the “efficient administration” of Medicare and Medicaid programs, and portions of the statute that affect different types of entities also generally authorize the secretary to make requirements for Protecting the health and safety of patients.
The majority wrote that the mandate “fits the language of the law very well”.
The majority added that facilities that receive money from the Medicare and Medicaid programs must meet many federal health and safety requirements.
“All of this is perhaps why healthcare workers and public health organizations overwhelmingly support the secretary rule,” the majority wrote. “Indeed, their support suggests that mandatory vaccination in these circumstances is a simple and predictable example of the ‘health and safety rules’ that Congress has authorized the Secretary to impose.”
In contrast, Justice Clarence Thomas, along with Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch, and Amy Coney Barrett, wrote that “scattered provisions” in the statute did not warrant the mandate.
Without “extremely clear” authorization from Congress, Judge Thomas wrote, the federal government should not be allowed to force healthcare workers “to choose between losing their livelihoods and agreeing to a vaccine they have refused for months.”
“These cases are not about the effectiveness or importance of Covid-19 vaccines,” he wrote. “It’s just a question of whether” the agency “has the legal authority to compel healthcare workers to undergo a medical procedure that they don’t want and cannot reverse by forcing their employers.”
The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld state vaccination mandates in a variety of situations against constitutional challenges. The two cases ruled on Thursday concerned a different issue, whether Congress authorized the Executive Branch to make the requirements.
The majority opinion in the case of the health workers seemed to try to harmonize the two judgments.
“The challenges of a global pandemic do not allow a federal agency to exercise powers not delegated by Congress,” the statement said. “At the same time, such unprecedented circumstances offer no reason to limit the exercise of powers that have long been vested in the agency.”
Emma Goldberg and Lauren Hirsch contributed reporting.