WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court has halted a major push by the Biden government to increase the country’s COVID-19 vaccination rate, a requirement that employees at large companies receive or test a vaccine regularly and wear a mask at work.
At the same time, the court allows the government to issue a vaccination mandate for most healthcare workers in the United States. The court’s orders on Thursday came amid a surge in coronavirus cases caused by the Omicron variant.
The court’s conservative majority concluded that the government had exceeded its powers in attempting to impose the Occupational Safety and Health Agency’s vaccination-or-test rule on US companies with at least 100 employees. It would have affected more than 80 million people, and OSHA had estimated that the rule would save 6,500 lives and prevent 250,000 hospitalizations within six months.
“OSHA has never imposed such a mandate before. Neither does Congress. Although Congress passed significant laws to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, it has refused to take action similar to what OSHA has promulgated here, ”the Conservatives wrote in an unsigned statement.
In contrast, the court’s three liberals argued that it was the court that went too far in replacing its judgment with that of the health experts. “The Court is acting outside of its jurisdiction and without legal basis, replacing the judgments of government officials who have delegated responsibility for responding to health emergencies in the workplace,” wrote Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor in a joint dissent.
President Joe Biden said he was “disappointed that the Supreme Court decided to block life-saving common sense requirements for employees of large companies that are based on both science and law”.
Biden urged companies to introduce their own vaccination regulations, noting that a third of the Fortune 100 companies have already done so.
In drafting the OSHA rule, White House officials have always anticipated legal challenges – and privately, some had doubts that they could withstand them. Nevertheless, the administration regards the rule as a success, which already drives millions of people to vaccinate and encourages private companies to implement their own requirements, which remain unaffected by the legal challenge.
The OSHA regulation was initially blocked by a federal appeals court in New Orleans and then taken into effect by a federal appeals court in Cincinnati.
Both rules had been challenged by Republican-led states. In addition, corporate groups attacked the OSHA Emergency Ordinance as being too expensive and would likely result in workers leaving their jobs at a time when it is already difficult to find new employees.
The National Retail Federation, the country’s largest retail group, described the Supreme Court’s decision as “a significant victory for employers.”
The vaccine mandate, which the court will enforce nationwide, was overturned by a 5-4 vote, with Presiding Judge John Roberts and Judge Brett Kavanaugh joining the Liberals to form a majority. The mandate encompasses virtually all healthcare workers in the country and applies to providers receiving Medicare or Medicaid federal funding. 10.4 million employees in 76,000 health facilities and general practitioners are affected. The rule has medical and religious exceptions.
Biden said the court’s decision “will save lives”.
In an unsigned advisory opinion, the court wrote: “The challenges of a global pandemic do not allow a federal agency to exercise power that Congress has not delegated to it. At the same time, such unprecedented circumstances provide no reason to restrict the exercise of powers long recognized by the Agency.
Judge Clarence Thomas wrote deviating from the fact that in the case it was about whether the administration had the authority to “compel health care workers to undergo a medical procedure which they do not want and cannot undo”. He said the government had not shown convincingly that Congress gave it that authority.
Judges Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Amy Coney Barrett signed Thomas’s statement. Alito wrote a separate dissent, which the other three Conservatives followed.
More than 208 million Americans, 62.7% of the population, are fully vaccinated, and more than a third of them have received a booster vaccination, according to the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All nine judges received booster shots.
The courthouse will remain closed to the public, and lawyers and reporters will be asked about negative test results before they can enter the courtroom for arguments, even though vaccinations are not required.
A separate federal contractor vaccine mandate, suspended after being blocked by lower courts, was not considered by the Supreme Court.
Associated Press Writer Zeke Miller contributed to this report.
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