Supreme Court blocks OSHA mandate
On January 13, a divided U.S. Supreme Court issued an order blocking a Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rule mandating that employers with 100 or more employees require employees to be fully vaccinated or be subject to a weekly Covid-19 test at their own expense. However, in a separate order the Court allowed a separate rule issued by the Department of Health and Human Services requiring Covid-19 vaccinations for health care workers (unless exempt for medical or religious reasons) at Medicare- and Medicaid-certified providers and suppliers to take effect.
In November, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued a nationwide stay on the emergency temporary standard (ETS) that included the mandate to employers, describing enforcement of the ETS illegitimate and calling the OSHA rule “unlawful” and “likely unconstitutional.” (Covered by InfoBytes here.) However, last month, the 6th Circuit lifted the stay in a 2-1 ruling, stating that “[b]ased on [OSHA’s] language, structure and Congressional approval, OSHA has long asserted its authority to protect workers against infectious diseases.” (Covered by InfoBytes here.) The applicants, seeking emergency relief from the Court to reinstate the stay, argued that the rule exceeded OSHA’s statutory authority and is otherwise unlawful.
In agreeing that the applicants are likely to prevail, the Court majority granted the application for relief and stayed the OSHA rule pending disposition of the applicants’ petitions for review in the 6th Circuit, as well as disposition of any timely petitions for writs of certiorari. “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 majority wrote. Adding that the ETS is a “blunt instrument” that “draws no distinctions based on industry or risk of exposure to COVID-19,” the majority stated that the Occupational Safety and Health Act does not plainly authorize the rule.
The dissenting judges argued that the majority’s decision “stymies the Federal Government’s ability to counter the unparalleled threat that COVID–19 poses to our Nation’s workers. Acting outside of its competence and without legal basis, the Court displaces the judgments of the Government officials given the responsibility to respond to workplace health emergencies.”
With respect to the Department of Health and Human Services rule, the Government applied to stay injunctions issued by two district courts preventing the rule from taking effect. In granting the application and staying the injunctions, the majority of the Court found that one of the Department’s basic functions authorized by Congress “is to ensure that the healthcare providers who care for Medicare and Medicaid patients protect their patients’ health and safety,” concluding that “[h]ealthcare workers around the country are ordinarily required to be vaccinated for diseases” and that “addressing infection problems in Medicare and Medicaid facilities is what [the Secretary] does.”
In dissent, four justices argued that the efficacy or importance of Covid-19 vaccines was not at issue in assessing the injunctions, stating that the district court cases were about “whether [the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] has the statutory authority to force healthcare workers, by coercing their employers, to undergo a medical procedure they do not want and cannot undo,” and arguing that “the Government has not made a strong showing that Congress gave CMS that broad authority.”