Supreme Courtroom blocks Biden Covid vaccine mandate for companies, permits health-care employee rule

The Supreme Court on Thursday blocked the Biden administration from enforcing its comprehensive vaccination or testing requirements for large private companies, but allowed a vaccination mandate for medical facilities that accept Medicare or Medicaid payments.

The verdicts came three days after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s emergency measures for companies went into effect.

The mandate required workers in companies with 100 or more employees to be vaccinated or present a negative Covid test weekly to enter the workplace. Also, unvaccinated workers were required to wear masks when working indoors.

“Although Congress has undeniably granted OSHA authority to regulate occupational hazards, it has not conferred that agency authority to regulate public health more broadly,” the court wrote in an unsigned opinion.

“Requiring the vaccination of 84 million Americans selected solely because they work for employers with more than 100 employees certainly falls into the latter category,” the court wrote.

A protester holds a “Freedoms & Mandates Don’t Mix” sign in front of the US Supreme Court Friday, January 7, 2022 while discussing two federal vaccination measures in Washington, DC, United States.

Al Drago | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Liberal Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan disagreed, writing that the majority had usurped power from Congress, the President and OSHA without legal basis.

“With the pandemic still raging, this court is telling the agency charged with protecting worker safety that it may not do so in all required workplaces,” they said in dissent.

“As sickness and death continue to rise, this court is telling the Authority that it cannot respond as effectively as possible. Without a legal basis, the court usurps a decision that rightfully belongs to others. It undermines the capacity of appropriate federal officials to act well within their authority to protect American workers from serious danger,” they wrote.

President Joe Biden said in a statement the Supreme Court chose to block requirements that are life-saving for workers. Biden called on states and companies to increase and voluntarily implement vaccination requirements to protect workers, customers and the broader community.

“The Court has ruled that my administration cannot use the powers granted to it by Congress to require this action, but that does not prevent me from using my voice as President to advocate for employers to do the right thing, to protect the health and economy of Americans,” Biden said.

Labor Secretary Marty Walsh called the court’s decision a major setback to the health and safety of workers and vowed OSHA would use its existing authority to ensure companies protect workers. The American Medical Association, one of the largest medical associations in the country, said it was “deeply disappointed”.

“In the face of an ever-evolving COVID-19 pandemic that poses a grave threat to the health of our nation, the Supreme Court today halted one of the most powerful tools in the fight against further transmission and death from this aggressive virus,” the AMA said said President Gerald Harmon.

In a separate ruling released at the same time on the government’s vaccination rules for healthcare workers, a 5-4 majority sided with the Biden administration.

“We agree with the government that the [Health and Human Services] The secretary’s rule falls within the powers conferred on him by Congress,” said the majority, writing that the rule “fits very well with the language of the statute”.

“Finally, ensuring that providers take steps to avoid transmitting a dangerous virus to their patients is consistent with the fundamental principle of the medical profession: First, do no harm,” says the majority opinion.

Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett, four of the six Conservatives on the nine-seat bench, disagreed.

“I don’t think the federal government is likely to show that Congress authorized the unprecedented move to force over 10,000,000 healthcare workers to be vaccinated under threat of dismissal,” Alito wrote in his dissent.

Biden said in a statement that making vaccinations compulsory for healthcare workers will save the lives of patients, doctors and nurses. “We will enforce it,” the president said of the mandate.

OSHA, which oversees workplace safety for the Department of Labor, granted the business mandate under its emergency powers established by Congress. OSHA can cut short the normal rulemaking process, which can take years, when the Secretary of Labor determines that a new occupational safety standard is needed to protect workers from a serious hazard.

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The court’s decision to overturn the business mandate comes as the pandemic rages across the United States and the highly contagious Omicron variant is sparking an unprecedented surge in new infections. The US is reporting an average of 786,000 new infections daily, a pandemic record and a 37% increase from last week, according to CNBC analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University.

Hospital admissions have also reached a pandemic peak, according to federal data dating back to the summer of 2020. According to a seven-day average of Department of Health and Human Services data, 149,000 Americans are in US hospitals with Covid, a 27% increase. last week.

The vaccination or testing rules have faced a number of lawsuits from 27 states involving Republican attorneys general or governors, private companies, religious groups and national business organizations such as the National Retail Federation, the American Trucking Associations and the National Federation of Independent Business.

The NRF issued a statement calling the Supreme Court ruling a “victory” and calling on the Biden administration to “reject this unlawful mandate and instead work with employers, workers and public health professionals on practical ways to increase immunization rates and contain it.” the spread of the virus in 2022.”

The mandates were the most extensive use of power by the federal government to protect workers from Covid since the pandemic began. Taken together, the Biden administration estimated that the rules for businesses and healthcare workers would apply to about 100 million Americans.

But both rules were in flux long before the Supreme Court adopted them. The OSHA rules were blocked by a conservative federal appeals court in November, then Reinstated weeks later by another court.

The White House at the time urged companies to follow public safety requirements even if they were not enforced.

Some companies have done this, others have introduced their own rules. A number of large employers, including Citigroup, Nike and Columbia Sportswear, have announced plans to lay off unvaccinated workers in recent days.

— CNBC’s Christina Wilkie contributed to this report.