In a major blow to President Joe Biden’s effort to combat the spread of Covid-19, the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday rejected his vaccine mandate for large private employers, which would have affected more than 84 million workers.
In a 6-3 vote, the court’s conservatives expressed doubts that the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration had the legal authority to impose a broad mandate on companies with 100 or more employees. Workers would have been required to get vaccinated against Covid-19 or submit to regular testing for the virus, and to wear masks in the workplace.
“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 said.
At the same time, in a 5-3 vote, the court upheld a similar mandate affecting roughly 17 million health care workers at facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid funding. “Ensuring that providers take steps to avoid transmitting a dangerous virus to their patients is consistent with the fundamental principle of the medical profession: first, do no harm,” the court said in a separate opinion.
A victory for business interests and conservatives: The legal effort to halt the mandate was led by 26 business groups and 27 Republican-led states, who sued OSHA, charging that the agency was exceeding its legal authority.
“Today’s ruling protects our individual rights and states’ rights to pursue the solutions that work best for their citizens,” said Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, who helped organize the suit.
Several provisions of the mandate were set to take effect this week, although enforcement was not expected to begin until February. The Biden administration estimated that the mandate would spur 22 million additional vaccinations and prevent 250,000 hospitalizations and more than 6,000 deaths.
Biden responds: Saying that the ruling “does not stop me from using my voice as president to advocate for employers to do the right thing to protect Americans’ health and economy,” Biden encouraged states and companies to issue mandates on their own.
“I am disappointed that the Supreme Court has chosen to block common-sense life-saving requirements for employees at large businesses that were grounded squarely in both science and the law,” Biden said in a statement. “As a result of the court’s decision, it is now up to states and individual employers to determine whether to make their workplaces as safe as possible for employees, and whether their businesses will be safe for consumers during this pandemic by requiring employees to take the simple and effective step of getting vaccinated.”