WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday blocked the Biden administration from enforcing a vaccine-or-testing mandate for major employers, dealing a blow to a key part of the White House’s plan to deal with the pandemic as coronavirus cases as a result of the Omicron variant are underway the emergence.
But in a modest victory for President Biden, the court allowed a more limited mandate requiring health workers in facilities receiving federal funding to be vaccinated.
The vote in the employer’s mandate case was 6 to 3, with the Liberal judges against. The vote in the healthcare case was 5 to 4, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh joined the Liberal judges to form a majority.
The employer decision undermined one of President Biden’s key efforts to tame the virus, leaving the country with a patchwork of state laws and policies, leaving businesses and corporations largely alone.
The president welcomed the ruling in his favor and said in a statement it would save the lives of health professionals and patients. But he said he was disappointed that the court had overturned the employer’s mandate, which he said “is based on both science and law”.
In both the employer and health worker cases, the judges examined whether Congress had authorized the executive branch to take sweeping steps to address the health crisis.
The unsigned majority opinion in the employers’ case said a statute on workplace hazards did not justify a mandate that more than 80 million workers would be vaccinated against the coronavirus or wear masks and be tested weekly. It also highlighted the novelty and scope of the mandate issued by the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, and said Congress had not authorized the agency to act and described its response as “a blunt one.” instrument”.
The mandate “does not discriminate based on industry or risk of exposure to Covid-19,” the majority opinion said, adding that it was “a significant impact on the lives — and health — of a large number of workers.”
But the opinion said more tailored regulations may be legal, as “most lifeguards and linemen deal with 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 “examine the federal government’s ability to address the unparalleled threat Covid-19 poses to our country’s workers.” offer” to frustrate.
Regulating workplace safety, the three dissident judges wrote, is exactly what OSHA should do.
They agreed that the main issue in the case was institutional competence to address the healthcare crisis.
“The basis of everything else in this dispute,” they wrote, “is a single, simple question: Who decides how much, and of what kind, protection American workers need from Covid-19? An agency with expertise in occupational health and safety, acting as authorized by Congress and the President? Or a court that has no knowledge of how to secure workplaces and is not responsible for any damage it causes?”
The wiser course, they wrote, would have been to go to OSHA.
“In light of a still raging pandemic, this court is telling the agency charged with protecting worker safety that it must not do so in all necessary workplaces,” the dissenters wrote of the majority’s actions in the case, National Federation of Independent Business v. Department of Labor, No. 21A244. “As illness and death continue to rise, this court tells the agency it cannot respond in the most effective way.”
OSHA issued the mandate in November, making exceptions for employees with religious objections and those who do not come into close contact with other people at work. The government estimated it would vaccinate 22 million people and prevent 250,000 hospitalizations.
The ruling means companies across the country must now choose between protecting employees, potentially losing employees who can withstand compliance, and violating patchwork regulations.
Several major companies, such as United Airlines and Tyson Foods, already have mandates, while others have held back and waited for the legal battle to be resolved. Some companies feared losing workers at a time when workers are already scarce. While companies with mandates have said those concerns have largely failed to materialize, a national requirement could have helped allay those concerns.
Walmart, Amazon and JPMorgan Chase, three of the largest employers in the United States, have yet to impose general requirements on their employees. Some companies that have waited have expressed concerns about the cost of setting up testing programs and cutting back on unvaccinated workers.
That second mandate applies to employees in hospitals and other healthcare facilities who participate in the Medicare and Medicaid programs.
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Federal judges in Missouri and Louisiana had blocked the requirement, which provides exemptions for people with medical or religious concerns, in rulings that apply in about half the states. It will now go into effect nationwide.
In an unsigned opinion in the case, Biden v. Missouri, No. 21A240, the majority wrote that the health care mandate issued by the Secretary of Health and Human Services “belongs to the authorities that Congress has given it.” .
The governing statute gives the secretary general authority to issue regulations to ensure the “efficient administration” of the Medicare and Medicaid programs, and parts of the statute pertaining to different types of facilities also generally authorize the secretary to impose requirements to protect the health and safety of patients.
The majority wrote that the mandate “fits neatly into the language of the law”.
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 health professionals and public health organizations overwhelmingly support the Secretary’s rule,” the majority wrote. “Indeed, their support suggests that a vaccination requirement under these circumstances is a clear and predictable example of the ‘health and safety regulations’ that Congress has authorized the Secretary to impose.”
In contradiction, Judge Clarence Thomas, along with Judges Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett, wrote that “scattered provisions” in the statute did not justify the mandate.
Without “extremely clear” congressional approval, Judge Thomas wrote, the federal government should not be allowed to force health professionals “to choose between losing their livelihood and agreeing to a vaccine they have rejected for months.”
“These cases are not about the efficacy or importance of Covid-19 vaccines,” he wrote. “It’s just a matter of whether ‘the agency’ has the legal authority to compel health workers, by coercing their employers, to undergo a medical procedure that they do not want and cannot undo.”
The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld state vaccination mandates in various situations against constitutional challenges. The two cases decided on Thursday related to a different question, namely whether Congress authorized the executive branch to enact the requirements.
Majority opinion in the health professionals case appeared to be trying to harmonize the two rulings.
“The challenges posed by a global pandemic do not allow a federal agency to exercise powers that Congress has not granted it,” the advisory reads. “At the same time, such unprecedented circumstances provide no reason to limit the exercise of powers long recognized by the agency.”
Emma Goldberg and Lauren Hirsch reporting contributed.