- Conservative Majority Court split on both cases
- The prohibited policy applies to companies with more than 100 employees
- Vaccines needed in facilities that use Medicare and Medicaid
WASHINGTON, Jan 13 (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday blocked President Joe Biden’s authorization of vaccination or testing against the COVID-19 coronavirus for large corporations — a policy that conservative judges have deemed inappropriately imposing on the lives and health of many Americans – While approving a separate federal vaccine requirement for health care facilities.
Biden expressed disappointment with the conservative-majority court’s decision to halt his administration’s rule requiring weekly COVID-19 vaccinations or tests for employees at companies with at least 100 employees. Biden said it was now up to states and employers to decide whether workers should “take the simple, effective step of getting vaccinated.”
The court has been divided in both cases, focusing on federal regulations related to the pandemic at a time when a surge in coronavirus infections is driven by the Omicron variant in a country that leads the world with more than 845,000 deaths from COVID-19.
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It ruled 6-3, with six conservative justices in the majority and three liberal justices opposing, blocking the rule involving large corporations — a policy that applies to more than 80 million employees. The court’s majority downplayed the danger COVID-19 posed specifically in the workplace, comparing it instead to “everyday” crime and the pollution risks faced by individuals everywhere.
The votes were 5-4 to allow the health care worker base, which requires vaccination for about 10.3 million workers in 76,000 health care facilities including hospitals and nursing homes that accept money from state health insurance programs Medicare and Medicaid for elderly, disabled, and low-income Americans . Two conservatives, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh, joined the Liberals in the majority in that case.
In a statement, Biden said the court’s decision to allow a health care worker to mandate “will save lives” and that his administration will enforce it. Workers should be vaccinated by the end of February.
Last Friday, the court heard arguments in a legal dispute over interim mandates two federal agencies issued in November aimed at increasing US vaccination rates and making workplaces and health care settings safer. The cases tested presidential powers to tackle a bloated public health crisis.
In an unsigned ruling, the court said the rule affecting large companies, which was issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), was not an ordinary use of federal power.
Instead, the court said, “it is a grave infringement on the life – and health – of a large number of employees.”
“Allowing OSHA to regulate the risks of everyday life – simply because most Americans have jobs and face the same risks around the clock – would significantly expand OSHA’s regulatory authority without a clear mandate from Congress,” the court added.
Challengers led by Ohio and the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), which represents employers, asked judges to block OSHA’s ruling after a lower court lifted an injunction against it. Companies were supposed to start showing their commitment from last Monday.
In the event of dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote on behalf of the Liberal Justices that the decision “impedes the ability of the federal government to confront the unparalleled threat that COVID-19 poses to our nation’s workers.”
“Today’s decision is a welcome relief to small American businesses, which have been trying to get their businesses back on track since the start of the pandemic,” said Karen Harnd, executive director of the NFIB’s legal branch.
The Supreme Court blocked a December 17 decision by the Cincinnati-based US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which had allowed the mandate to go into effect.
In the health care facilities case, the court’s majority concluded differently that the regulation was “perfectly proportional” to the power Congress has given the government to impose conditions on Medicaid and Medicare funds, which include policies that protect health and safety.
After all, ensuring that providers take steps to avoid transmitting a dangerous virus to their patients is consistent with the basic principle of the medical profession: First, do no harm, the court said.
Four conservative justices contested the health care facility’s decision, concluding that Congress had not given the federal agency the power to order vaccinations for millions of health care workers. In one dissenting, Judge Samuel Alito doubted that the agency could “put more than 10 million health care workers to choose their jobs or irreversible medical treatment.”
The justices lifted orders by federal judges in Missouri and Louisiana to block policy in 24 states, allowing the administration to enforce them in nearly all of the country. Execution in Texas was blocked by a lower court in a separate suit not under consideration by the Supreme Court.
Gerald Harmon, president of the American Medical Association’s Physician Group, said that while he was pleased the court allowed the health care worker’s authorization, a broader workplace rule was also needed.
“Transmission in the workplace has been a major factor in the spread of COVID-19,” Harmon added. “Now more than ever, workers in all places across the country need rational and evidence-based safeguards against COVID-19 infection, hospitalization and death.”
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(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung) Additional reporting by Alexandra Alper. Editing by Will Dunham
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