Supreme Court blocks Biden’s vaccine authorization for big employers

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday blocked the Biden administration from enforcing a vaccine or testing mandate for large employers, dealing a blow to a key element of the White House’s pandemic response plan as coronavirus cases caused by the Omicron variant are on sunrise.

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

The vote in the Employer Mandate case was 6 to 3, with liberal justices in opposition. The vote in the healthcare issue 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 important attempts to tame the virus and left the country with a patchwork of state laws and policies, leaving businesses and businesses largely on their own.

The president welcomed the ruling in his favour, saying in a statement it would save the lives of health care workers and patients. But he said he was disappointed that the court overturned the employer’s authorization, which he said was “clearly well-founded in both science and law.”

In both the employer and health worker cases, judges explored whether Congress had authorized the executive branch to take sweeping action to address the health care crisis.

The unsigned majority opinion in the employer case said the workplace hazards law did not justify a mandate requiring more than 80 million workers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or wear masks and tested weekly. He also emphasized the novelty and sweeping mandate of the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, saying Congress had not authorized the agency to act and calling its response a “blunt tool.”

The majority view said the mandate “places no discrimination based on industry or risk of exposure to Covid-19,” adding that it was a “significant infringement on the lives – and health – of a significant number of employees”.

But the opinion said more tailored regulations might be legal given that “most lifeguards and seafarers face the same regulations as doctors and meat-looters.”

In a dissenting opinion, Justices Stephen J. Breyer, Sonya Sotomayor and Elena Kagan expressed doubts about the court’s willingness to thwart “the federal government’s ability to confront the unparalleled threat posed by COVID-19 to our nation’s workers.”

The three dissenting justices wrote that regulating workplace safety is exactly what the Occupational Safety and Health Administration orders it to do.

They agreed that the main issue in the case was institutional efficiency to address the health care crisis.

They wrote that “everything else in this dispute is one simple question: Who decides how much and what kind of protection American workers need from Covid-19? An agency with expertise in workplace health and safety, serving as Congress and empowering the president? Or a court lacking knowledge of how Protecting the premises, and insulated from liability for any damage it causes?”

They wrote that the wiser course would have been to comply with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Opponents wrote about the actions of the majority in the case, “National Federation of Independent Business” v. Department of Labor, No. 21A244. “As illness and death continue to increase, this court is telling the agency that it cannot respond in the most effective way possible.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued the authorization in November, with exceptions for workers who have religious objections and those who do not come into close contact with other people in their jobs. The administration estimated that this would vaccinate 22 million people and prevent 250,000 hospitalizations.

The ruling means businesses across the country must now decide between protecting employees, which could lead to the loss of employees who resist complying with patchwork regulations.

Several major companies, such as United Airlines and Tyson Foods, already have mandates, while others have backed down and waited for legal battles to resolve. Some companies have been concerned about losing employees at a time when workers are already suffering from scarcity. While companies with mandates said those concerns have largely not come to fruition, national requirements could have helped alleviate those concerns.

Walmart, Amazon and JPMorgan Chase, three of the largest employers in the United States, have not issued extensive requirements for their workers. Some companies that have waited have expressed concerns about the costs of setting up testing and resistance programs from unvaccinated employees.

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

Federal judges in Missouri and Louisiana had blocked this requirement, which includes exceptions for people with medical or religious objections, in provisions applicable in about half of the states. It will now enter into force nationwide.

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

The governing law gives the Secretary-General the power to issue regulations to ensure “effective management” of Medicare and Medicaid programs, and parts of the law relating to various types of facilities generally empower the Secretary to impose requirements to protect the health and safety of patients.

The majority wrote that the mandate “fits neatly into the language of the statute”.

The majority added that facilities receiving funds from Medicare and Medicaid programs must comply with many federal health and safety requirements.

“Perhaps all of this is why healthcare workers and public health organizations are overwhelmingly supportive of the minister’s ruling,” the majority wrote. In fact, their support indicates that the vaccination requirement under these circumstances is a direct and predictable example of the ‘health and safety’ regulations Congress has mandated the Secretary to enforce.

In dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote, joined by Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch and Amy Connie Barrett argue that “scattered clauses” in the law do not justify authorization.

Justice Thomas wrote that without a “very clear” mandate from Congress, the federal government should not be allowed to compel health care workers to “choose between losing their livelihoods and submitting to a vaccine they refused months ago.”

“These cases are not related to the efficacy or importance of Covid-19 vaccines,” he wrote. “They are just about whether the ‘agency’ has the legal power to compel health care workers, by forcing their employers, to undergo a medical procedure that they neither want nor can undo.”

The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld state mandates on the vaccine in a variety of contexts against constitutional challenges. The two cases decided on Thursday relate to a different issue of whether Congress has empowered the executive branch to set the requirements.

The majority opinion in the health care worker case appears to be trying to reconcile the two provisions.

“The challenges posed by a global pandemic do not allow a federal agency to exercise power that Congress has not conferred on it,” the opinion said. “At the same time, such unprecedented circumstances do not provide any basis for limiting the exercise of powers that have long been recognized by the agency.”

Emma Goldberg And Lauren Hirsch Contribute to the preparation of reports.

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Andrew Naughtie

News reporter and author at @websalespromo