Supreme Court blocks OSHA mandate, upholds CMS' healthcare worker rule

The Supreme Court on Jan. 13 blocked enforcement of the Biden administration's COVID-19 vaccinate-or-test rule for workers at larger businesses. However, justices kept in place CMS' vaccination mandate for eligible staff at healthcare facilities participating in the Medicare and Medicaid programs.  

In a 6-3 decision, the court blocked enforcement of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's vaccinate-or-test mandate for businesses with 100 or more employees.

The OSHA mandate would have required covered businesses to establish a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy, unless they require workers to be vaccinated or undergo regular testing and wear a face covering at work. There was an exception for employees who don't work in close contact with others, The New York Times reported. Much of the mandate, which would have applied to about 84 million workers, had been scheduled to take effect Jan. 10, but OSHA had said it would not issue citations for noncompliance with the rule's testing requirements before Feb. 9. 

"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 court's opinion said. "Requiring the vaccination of 84 million Americans, selected simply because they work for employers with more than 100 employees certainly falls in the latter category." 

In dissent, Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan wrote, "In our view, the court's order seriously misapplies the applicable legal standards. And in so doing, it stymies the federal government's ability to counter the unparalleled threat that COVID-19 poses to our nation's workers."

In a separate 5-4 decision, the court upheld the CMS mandate.

The CMS mandate requires healthcare facilities to establish a policy ensuring eligible workers are fully vaccinated, with exemptions allowed based on religious beliefs or recognized medical conditions. 

Regarding the mandate, the court's decision states, "The challenges posed by a global pandemic do not allow a federal agency to exercise power that Congress has not conferred upon it. At the same time, such unprecedented circumstances provide no grounds for limiting the exercise of authorities the agency has long been recognized to have."

Justice Clarence Thomas, with whom Justices Gorsuch, Amy Coney Barrett and Samuel Alito Jr. dissented, wrote, "Because there is no real dispute that this case merits our review, our decision turns primarily on whether the government can make a 'strong showing' that it is likely to succeed on the merits. In my view, the government has not made such a showing here."

Challenges to the OSHA and CMS requirements came to the Supreme Court on an emergency basis as the omicron variant spreads throughout the country, according to SCOTUSblog. While the Supreme Court could have decided to issue a brief order and decline hearing arguments, they agreed to consider the challenges Jan. 7. The court was not considering the full merits of the rules but whether the requirements could stay in place as litigation continued in lower courts, according to The Wall Street Journal

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