Supreme Court Strikes Down OSHA Vaccine Mandate for Large Employers

The Supreme Court has stayed the OSHA’s vaccine-or-test mandate for large private employers, while litigation over its legality continues in the lower courts. Over a dissent from the Court’s three liberal justices, the court ruled that OSHA exceeded its congressionally granted authority in issuing such a sweeping mandate. In a separately issued decision, the Court by a 5-4 vote permitted a vaccination mandate covering health care workers at facilities receiving federal funding through Medicare or Medicaid programs to go into effect.

Six Justices agreed that OSHA exceeded its statutory authority to impose universal COVID-19 safety standards under its power to issue emergency temporary standards. The Court described the vaccine-or-test rule as a “blunt instrument,” that draws no distinctions based on specific industry or actual risk of exposure. Taking the opportunity to articulate its view of OSHA’s role, the Court explained that OSHA’s authority is limited to regulating workplace hazards and Congress “has not given that agency the power to regulate public health more broadly.” Because COVID-19 is not a uniquely occupational hazard (i.e. people can catch it anywhere), the vaccine mandate exceeded OSHA’s authority, the Court reasoned.

OSHA issued the vaccine mandate at the center of the case back in November 2021. Under the mandate, all employers with 100 or more employees were required to compel their employees to either get fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or to be tested weekly and mask up while at work. The mandate covered approximately 84 million workers.

Within hours of the announcement of the mandate, numerous businesses, states, and nonprofits filed suit seeking to challenge the mandate. The Fifth Circuit appeals court initially blocked implementation of the mandate and the Sixth Circuit later ruled that the mandate could proceed. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal, and less than three months after OSHA announced the mandate, the Court granted the plaintiffs’ request to put it on hold, describing it as a “significant encroachment into the lives — and health — of a vast number of employees.”

In its opinion, the Court explained that Congress gave OSHA the power to regulate workplace dangers rather than “broad public health measures.” If Congress intended to give the federal agency the authority to “exercise powers of vast economic and political significance,” the Court explained, it needed to do so clearly and expressly. In this case, the Court concluded, Congress did not. “Permitting OSHA to regulate the hazards of daily life—simply because most Americans have jobs and face those same risks while on the clock—would significantly expand OSHA’s regulatory authority without clear congressional authorization,” the Court concluded. The Court supported its conclusion by noting the fact that OSHA never adopted a similar regulation previously, finding this to be a “telling indication” that the mandate exceeded the agency’s power. The Court summed up its decision by explaining that “imposing a vaccine mandate on 84 million Americans in response to a worldwide pandemic is simply not part of what the agency was built for.”

Following the Court’s decision, the Biden administration announced that it was withdrawing the mandate and will be seeking dismissal of the pending suit in the Sixth Circuit.

The Court’s full opinion is available here.

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