The Current Vaccine Mandate as Decided by the Supreme Court

by LegalFix
Posted: February 8, 2022
United States Supreme Court

In late January, the Biden administration formally withdrew its vaccine and testing mandate for private companies shortly after the Supreme Court blocked the requirements. In a 6–3 decision, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority ruled that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration had overstepped their authority. As a result, OSHA pulled the rule for businesses on January 25, 2022.

At its heart, the Supreme Court’s decision seems to oppose the scope of the vaccine mandate. Under this ruling, the vaccine mandate will only affect workers in specific, health-related industries rather than every large company.

Although the Supreme Court’s final decision throws a wrench in President Joe Biden’s plan to tackle the spread of COVID-19, the vote is legally sound. To understand the full implications of the Supreme Court’s ruling, we must first review the details of the vaccine mandate and discuss how the court came to its decision.

An Overview of President Biden’s Mandate

In its original form, the Biden administration’s proposed vaccine mandate would have required companies with over 100 employees to be tested weekly or vaccinated. This mandate included exemptions for people who worked from home or outdoors, along with those who had medical or religious objections. Still, if this ruling were to have taken effect, it would have impacted over 84 million workers.

The Supreme Court evaluated the legality of this sweeping measure, while the conservative majority and Republican state attorneys contended that Biden’s vaccine mandate surpassed his realm of authority.

On January 13, 2022, the Supreme Court blocked President Biden’s vaccine mandate. However, the justices didn’t block the entire mandate. Instead, they decided to throw out some portions while enforcing more specific regulations — such as dictating mandatory vaccination for employees in nursing facilities and hospitals. When this rule takes effect, it will impact the 10 million healthcare employees that work for facilities participating in Medicaid and Medicare.

In a written statement, Biden said, “Today’s decision by the Supreme Court to uphold the requirement for healthcare workers will save lives: the lives of patients who spend weeks in medical facilities, as well as the lives of doctors, nurses, and others who work there.”

He went on to say, “At the same time, I am disappointed that the Supreme Court has chosen to block common-sense, life-saving requirements for employees at large businesses that were squarely grounded in both science and law.”

The Legal and Health Implications of the Two Rulings

Some proponents of the mandate have tried to draw direct parallels between the federal backing at play in both groups targeted by the original mandate — i.e., healthcare and large corporations. But although many large companies receive federal funding, just as Medicare and Medicaid healthcare facilities, these two situations are not as similar as they may seem.

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has the authority to dictate the conditions under which facilities participate in Medicare and Medicaid programs. Michelle Mello, a professor of health policy and law at Stanford, explains:

“If you’re a hospital and you want to bill these programs for services to provide your beneficiaries, you must do a lot of things to prove that you’re set up to provide safe care. The description Congress gave of what CMS can require as a condition of participation is broad, and CMS has long required other things to prevent the transmissions of communicable diseases and infections.”

However, OSHA’s ability to dictate vaccine requirements is not predicated on the same foundation of funding oversight, meaning that legally, the Supreme Court had to judge on a separate basis.

OSHA and the Vaccine Mandate

The case involving the Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s rule is different. OSHA was attempting to exercise its authority under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which exists to ensure workplace safety. OSHA’s authority has nothing to do with whether or not a company receives federal funding.

Essentially, the Supreme Court did not have sufficient evidence to support the claim that unvaccinated workers in large companies pose a significant workplace safety risk. The court’s majority stated that the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 only gives OSHA the authority to address safety hazards within the workplace. Since everyone faces the risk of COVID throughout their everyday life, it is not a work-specific health risk, much like the hazards of pollution.

Although the three dissenters on the bench agreed with this principle, they argued that it is nonsensical of OSHA to neglect to address the spread of COVID-19 with the vaccine mandate. It was pointed out that certain workplaces operate with an increased risk of spreading COVID-19, such as those with high-contact, crowded spaces. However, the majority concluded that OSHA’s rule could not apply to every employer.

Who Decides How Companies Respond to the Pandemic?

Ultimately, the discourse surrounding the mandate poses a broad question: who should decide the level of protection workers need from COVID-19? As stated by three of the conservative justices, “The question before us is not how to respond to the pandemic, but who holds the power to do so. … [T]hat power rests with the States and Congress, not OSHA.”

While those in favor of the vaccine mandate argue that OSHA should have the authority to impose this ruling, the majority disagrees. In an oral argument, Chief Justice Roberts stated that the issue of a global pandemic did not exist when the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 was passed — and as such, was not intended to fall under OSHA’s purview.

Furthermore, there are concerns that employer mandates could create more problems for large companies than they would solve. As the Great Resignation sweeps across the country, employees are quick to leave a place of employment that does not align with their values. Since the pandemic began, many workers have been reluctant to fill roles in essential industries, and the mandate may have depressed these attempts at hiring even further.

While reports from some companies point towards high levels of compliance, many businesses are concerned that employer mandates would push workers to abandon their jobs. However, it is important to note that the Supreme Court’s final ruling does not state that employers cannot require vaccination amongst their employees — OSHA simply cannot require it under this statute, leaving the decision in the hands of individual boards and business owners.