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 fight the pandemic as cases resulting from the Omicron variant in the Ganges are rising.
But the court allowed a more modest mandate that requires health workers at facilities that receive federal funds to be vaccinated.
The vote in the Employers’ Mandate case was 6 to 3, with 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’ mandate would have required workers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or to wear masks and be tested weekly, although employers were not required to pay for the tests. There were exceptions for employees with religious objections and those who do not have close contact with other people at work, for example from home or only outdoors.
Parts of the mandate regarding records and masks were due to come into force on Monday. The administration had announced that the test requirements would not be enforced until February 9th.
The OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) of the Department of Labor gave the mandate in November and it applied to more than 84 million workers. The government estimated that this would vaccinate 22 million people and prevent 250,000 hospital admissions.
At hearings at a special session on Friday, members of the court’s conservative majority appeared to doubt that the government had congressional authorization to impose the requirements.
This second mandate applies to workers in hospitals and other healthcare facilities participating in the Medicare and Medicaid programs. It would affect more than 17 million workers, the government said, and would “save hundreds or even thousands of lives every month”.
The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld state vaccination mandates in a variety of situations against constitutional challenges. The new cases are different because they primarily raise questions about whether Congress authorized the Executive Branch to make the requirements.
A divided three-judge panel at the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati said last month that the mandate for large employers appears legitimate.
“The records show that Covid-19 is continuing to spread, mutate, kill and block the safe return to work of American workers,” Justice Jane B. Strangch wrote for the majority. “To protect workers, OSHA can and must be able to respond to developing hazards.”
In contrast, Judge Joan L. Larsen wrote that the administration most likely “lacks the authority of Congress” to impose the vaccination or testing requirement.
“The mandate is aimed squarely at protecting the unvaccinated from their own choices,” she wrote. “Vaccines are freely available, and unvaccinated people can choose to protect themselves at any time.”