WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court has prevented the Biden administration from enforcing a requirement that employees at major companies be vaccinated against Covid-19 or undergo weekly tests and wear a mask while on the job.
At the same time, the court allows the government to proceed with a vaccine mandate for most health care workers in the US
The court orders Thursday amid a spike in coronavirus cases were a mixed bag for the government’s efforts to increase vaccination rates among Americans.
The court’s conservative majority concluded that the government overstepped its authority by attempting to impose the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s vaccine-or-test rule on U.S. companies with at least 100 employees. More than 80 million people are said to be affected.
“OSHA has never imposed such a mandate before. Neither does Congress. Indeed, while Congress has passed important legislation to address the COVID-19 pandemic, it has refused to enact measures similar to what OSHA has enacted here,” the conservatives wrote in an unsigned opinion.
In contradiction, the court’s three liberals argued that it was the court that went too far by substituting its judgment for that of health experts. “The Court is acting beyond its jurisdiction and without a legal basis, supplanting the rulings of government officials who have been given responsibility to respond to workplace health emergencies,” wrote Judges Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. in a joint dissent.
In drafting the OSHA rule, White House officials always anticipated legal challenges — and privately, some harbored doubts about whether it could withstand them. The government nevertheless still considers the rule a success in already pushing millions of people to get vaccinated and for private companies to implement their own requirements unaffected by the legal challenge.
Both rules had been challenged by Republican-led states. In addition, business groups found the OSHA emergency ordinance too expensive and would likely cause employees to quit their jobs at a time when it is already difficult to find new employees.
The vaccine mandate that the court will allow to be enforced nationwide will affect virtually all health professionals in the country. It applies to health care providers who receive federal Medicare or Medicaid funding, potentially affecting 76,000 healthcare facilities and home care providers. The rule has medical and religious exceptions.
Decisions by federal appeals courts in New Orleans and St. Louis had blocked the mandate in about half the states. The administration has already taken steps to enforce it elsewhere.
In the health care case, only Judges Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito noted their dissent. “The challenges posed by a global pandemic do not allow a federal agency to exercise powers that Congress has not granted it. At the same time, such unprecedented circumstances provide no grounds for limiting the exercise of powers that the agency has long recognized,” the judges wrote in an unsigned opinion, saying the “last principle rules” in health care matters.
More than 208 million Americans, 62.7% of the population, have been fully vaccinated, and more than a third of those have received booster shots, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All nine judges received booster shots.
The judges heard arguments about the challenges last week. Their questions then pointed to the split verdict they issued Thursday.