WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday blocked the Biden administration's rule requiring larger businesses to ensure that workers are vaccinated against Covid-19 or wear masks and get tested weekly.
But the court said a separate mandate requiring vaccinations for an estimated 20 million health care workers can be enforced.
The workplace rule, which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, announced last fall, 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.
OSHA estimated that the rule, which would have covered nearly 80 million U.S. workers, would save over 6,500 lives and prevent 250,000 hospitalizations in the next six months.
The court's conservative majority said the administration had gone too far in imposing such a sweeping requirement on the nation's businesses.
"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 conservative justices wrote in an unsigned opinion. "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."
The three liberal justices said in their dissent that 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."
"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 liberal 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 in the day, President Joe Biden celebrated the verdict in the health care worker case as one that would "save lives," but he 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 said.
The workplace rule, which was announced in November, was immediately challenged by a group of businesses and Republican states 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 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals 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 of Independent Business said the appeals court ruling was "a gut punch to America's small businesses who are struggling to stay in business as they come out of the pandemic."
Karen Harned, the executive director of the group's small business legal center, said the Supreme Court ruling was 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 can be enforced. Two federal appeals courts had blocked enforcement in 24 states; 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 vaccinations. The agency that administers Medicare and Medicaid has never before required vaccinations, they said.
Four conservative justices — Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, Samuel Alito and Amy Coney Barrett — disagreed with the majority and said they would have struck down the mandate for health care workers. The two justices who opposed the broad worker mandate but supported the requirement for health care workers were Brett Kavanaugh and Chief Justice John Roberts.