US Supreme Court halts Joe Biden's Covid vaccine mandate rule for businesses

Court moves to allow mandate for nursing home and healthcare workers at federal facilities

Brandon Trosclair, owner of a chain of grocery stores and plaintiff in a case before the Supreme Court challenging the US Department of Labour's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) vaccine mandate, speaks outside the Supreme Court in Washington. EPA

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The US Supreme Court has stopped President Joe Biden's administration from enforcing a requirement that employees at large businesses be vaccinated against Covid-19 or undergo weekly testing and wear a mask on the job.

At the same time, the court is allowing the administration to proceed with a vaccine mandate for most healthcare workers in the US.

The court’s orders on Thursday during a spike in coronavirus cases was a mixed bag for the administration’s efforts to boost the vaccination rate in the US.

The conservative majority of the court concluded the administration had overstepped its authority by seeking to impose the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) vaccine-or-test rule on US businesses with at least 100 employees.

More than 80 million people would have been affected.

“OSHA has never before imposed such a mandate. Nor has Congress. Indeed, although Congress has enacted significant legislation addressing the Covid-9 pandemic, it has declined to enact any measure similar to what OSHA has promulgated here,” the conservatives wrote in an unsigned opinion.

In dissent, the court’s three liberals argued that it was the court that was overreaching by substituting its judgments for health experts.

“Acting outside of its competence and without legal basis, the court displaces the judgments of the government officials given the responsibility to respond to workplace health emergencies,” Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a joint dissent.

When crafting the OSHA rule, White House officials always expected legal challenges — and privately some harboured doubts that it could withstand them.

The administration nonetheless still views the rule as a success at already driving millions of people to be vaccinated and for private businesses to enact their own requirements that are unaffected by the legal challenge.

Both rules had been challenged by Republican-led states.

In addition, business groups attacked the OSHA emergency regulation as too expensive and likely to cause workers to leave their jobs at a time when finding new employees already is difficult.

The vaccine mandate that the court will allow to be enforced nationwide covers virtually all healthcare workers in the country.

It applies to healthcare providers that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid funding, potentially affecting 76,000 healthcare facilities as well as home healthcare providers. The rule allows doe medical and religious exemptions.

In the healthcare case, only Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito noted their dissent.

“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 recognised to have,” the justices wrote in an unsigned opinion, saying the “latter principle governs” in the healthcare cases.

More than 208 million Americans, 62.7 per cent of the population, are fully vaccinated, and more than a third of those have received booster shots, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention- reported.

All nine justices have received booster shots.

The justices heard arguments on the challenges last week. Their questions then hinted at the split verdict that they issued on Thursday.

Updated: January 14th 2022, 6:40 AM