Supreme Court blocks Biden’s vaccine mandate for big employers

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Thursday blocked the Biden administration to enforce a vaccine or testing mandate for large employers, dealing a blow to a key part of the White House’s plan to fight the pandemic as coronavirus cases resulting from the Omicron variant are on the rise.

But in a modest victory by President Biden, the court authorized a more limited mandate requiring health care workers in facilities receiving federal funds to be vaccinated.

The vote in the employer mandate case was 6 to 3, with the Liberal justices dissenting. The vote in the health care case was 5-4, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh joining the liberal justices to form a majority.

The employer’s decision undermined one of President Biden’s most significant attempts to tame the virus and left the country with a patchwork of state laws and policies, largely leaving businesses and businesses alone .

The president welcomed the decision in his favor, saying in a statement that it would save the lives of healthcare workers and patients. But he said he was disappointed the court overturned the employer’s warrant, which he said was “based on science and law”.

In the employers’ and health workers’ cases, the justices sought to find out whether Congress had authorized the executive branch to take sweeping measures to deal with the health care crisis.

The unsigned majority opinion in the employer case said a workplace risk law did not justify a mandate that would have required more than 80 million workers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or to wear masks and to be tested weekly. He also pointed to the novelty and scope of the warrant issued by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, claiming that Congress had failed to authorize the agency to act and outlining its response as “a brutal instrument”.

The mandate “makes no distinction based on industry or risk of exposure to Covid-19,” the majority opinion said, adding that it was “a significant encroachment on life – and the health – of a large number of employees”.

But the opinion said more suitable regulations could be legal given that “most lifeguards and linemen face the same regulations as doctors and meatpackers”.

In a dissenting opinion, Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan expressed disbelief at the court’s willingness to thwart “the federal government’s ability to counter the unprecedented threat that Covid-19 poses to workers in our country”.

Regulating workplace safety, the three dissenting justices wrote, is precisely what OSHA is commanded to do.

They agreed that the key issue in the case was that of institutional competence to deal with the health care crisis.

“Underlying everything else in this conflict,” they wrote, “is one simple question: Who decides how much and what kind of protection American workers need from Covid-19? An agency with occupational health and safety expertise, acting as Congress and the authorized president? Or a court, devoid of any knowledge of how to protect workplaces and insulated from liability for any harm it causes?

The wisest course, they wrote, would have been to rely on OSHA.

“In the face of a pandemic that is still raging, this court tells the agency responsible for protecting worker safety that it may not do so in all necessary workplaces,” the dissidents wrote of the majority actions in the case, National Federation of Independent Business v. Department of Labor, No. 21A244. “As sickness and death continue to mount, this court tells the agency it cannot respond in the most effective way possible.”

OSHA issued the mandate in November, providing exceptions for workers with religious objections and those who do not come into close contact with other people in the course of their work. The administration considered that this would allow 22 million people to be vaccinated and avoid 250,000 hospitalizations.

The decision means businesses across the country must now choose between protecting employees, potentially losing reluctant to comply staff members and breaching disparate regulations.

Several major companies, like United Airlines and Tyson Foods, already have warrants, while others had held back and waited for legal battles to be resolved. Some companies fear losing employees at a time when workers are already scarce. Although companies with mandates said those concerns largely did not materialize, a national requirement could have helped ease those concerns.

Walmart, Amazon and JPMorgan Chase, three of the largest employers in the United States, have not yet issued general requirements for their workers. Some companies that have waited have raised concerns about the costs of setting up testing programs and turning away unvaccinated employees.

This second mandate applies to workers in hospitals and other health care facilities that participate in the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

Federal judges in Missouri and Louisiana had blocked the requirement, which provides exemptions for people with medical or religious objections, in rulings that applied in about half of the states. It will now come into effect nationwide.

In an unsigned opinion in Biden v. Missouri, No. 21A240, the majority wrote that the health care mandate issued by the Secretary of Health and Human Services “falls within the powers given to him by Congress.”

Current law gives the secretary general authority to make regulations to ensure the “effective administration” of the Medicare and Medicaid programs, and portions of the law relating to various types of facilities generally also authorize the secretary to impose requirements to protect health and safety. of sick.

The majority wrote that the mandate “fits perfectly into the language of the law.”

The Majority added that facilities that receive money from the Medicare and Medicaid programs must comply with numerous federal health and safety requirements.

“All of this is perhaps why healthcare workers 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 straightforward and predictable example of the ‘health and safety’ regulations Congress has authorized the Secretary to impose.”

In dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett, wrote that “scattered provisions” in the law did not justify the warrant.

Without “extremely clear” congressional authorization, Judge Thomas wrote, the federal government should not be allowed to force health care workers “to choose between losing their livelihoods and acquiescing to a vaccine they have rejected for so long. months”.

“These cases are not about the effectiveness or importance of Covid-19 vaccines,” he wrote. “It’s only about whether ‘the agency’ has the legal power to force healthcare workers, by coercing their employers, into having a medical procedure they don’t want and can’t undo.”

The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld state vaccine mandates in various contexts against constitutional challenges. The two cases decided on Thursday dealt with a different issue, that of whether Congress authorized the executive branch to institute the requirements.

The majority opinion in the healthcare workers case appeared to attempt to harmonize the two judgments.

“The challenges posed by a global pandemic do not permit a federal agency to exercise power not conferred on it by Congress,” the opinion said. “At the same time, such unprecedented circumstances provide no reason to limit the exercise of the powers the agency has long been recognized for.”

Emma Goldberg and Lauren Hirsch contributed report.

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