Supreme Court blocks Biden’s Covid requirements for businesses, upholds health care workers mandate

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday blocked the Biden administration’s rule requiring larger businesses to ensure that workers receive the Covid vaccine or wear masks and get tested on a weekly basis.

But the court said a separate mandate requiring vaccinations for an estimated 20 million health care workers can be enforced.

The workplace rule, announced last fall by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, required companies with 100 or more employees to ensure that their workers either get vaccinated or wear masks and show negative Covid test results at least once a week.

A woman gets a Covid-19 vaccine at Union Station in Los Angeles on Friday, Jan 7, 2022.Hans Gutknecht / Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images

The rule would have covered nearly 80 million American workers, and OSHA estimated it would save over 6,500 lives and prevent 250,000 hospitalizations in the next six months.

“Although Congress has indisputably given OSHA the power to regulate occupational dangers, it has not given that agency the power to regulate public health more broadly,” the court’s conservative majority said. “Requiring the vaccination of 84 million Americans, selected simply because they work for employers with more than 100 employees, certainly falls in the latter category.”

In their dissent, the three liberal justices on the court said OSHA was well within its authority and expertise to impose the mandates, unlike the court, which they said was “lacking any knowledge of how to safeguard workplaces, and insulated from responsibility for any damage it causes.”

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“In the face of a still-raging pandemic, this court tells the agency charged with protecting worker safety that it may not do so in all the workplaces needed,” the justices wrote. “As disease and death continue to mount, this court tells the agency that it cannot respond in the most effective way possible. Without legal basis, the court usurps a decision that rightfully belongs to others. It undercuts the capacity of the responsible federal officials, acting well within the scope of their authority, to protect American workers from grave danger.”

In a statement released later Thursday, President Joe Biden celebrated the verdict in the health care worker case as one that would “save lives,” but said he was “disappointed” that the broader workplace mandate was struck down.

“I am disappointed that the Supreme Court has chosen to block common-sense life-saving requirements for employees at large businesses that were grounded squarely in both science and the law,” he said, calling on individual businesses to institute their own vaccination requirements.

“We have to keep working together if we want to save lives, keep people working, and put this pandemic behind us,” he added.

The Biden administration’s workplace rule, announced in November, was immediately challenged by a group of red states and businesses that said the government lacked the power to issue such a sweeping mandate. Lower courts initially blocked the requirement, but a later ruling allowed it to go into effect.

In lifting the earlier stay, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit called the OSHA rule “an important step in curtailing the transmission of a deadly virus that has killed over 800,000 people in the United States, brought our health care system to its knees, and cost hundreds of thousands of workers their jobs.”

The National Federation for Independent Businesses called the appeals court ruling “a gut punch to America’s small businesses who are struggling to stay in business as they come out of the pandemic.”

Karen Harned, executive director of the group’s small business legal center, called the ruling a “welcome relief” to businesses struggling to keep afloat during the pandemic. She expressed optimism that with the OSHA rule now halted, the lower courts will proceed to find the regulation illegal.

“As small businesses try to recover after almost two years of significant business disruptions, the last thing they need is a mandate that would cause more business challenges,” Harned said.

Health care workers mandate

The Supreme Court on Thursday said a separate regulation that requires vaccinations for health care workers who treat Medicare and Medicaid patients could be enforced. Two federal appeals courts had blocked enforcement in 24 states, but the requirement went into effect in the remaining 26.

States opposed to the requirement said the federal law gave the government the authority to impose general health and safety rules for facilities like hospitals, but did not confer the power to require vaccines. The agency that administers Medicare and Medicaid has never before required vaccinations, they said.

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