The Biden administration has placed vaccination mandates at the heart of its attempts to limit the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Or at least he tried to; various states and other organizations have used the courts to challenge the federal government’s authority to impose these warrants. Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments about two of the most important warrants: one for all hospital workers issued by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and a second for all employees of large companies. issued by Occupational Safety and Health. administration (OSHA).
By the time the cases were argued in the Supreme Court, the HHS rule was already blocked by a stay from a lower court. By contrast, OSHA rules had seen a lower court lift previous stays, leaving it on the verge of being enforced.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court issued expedited rules that mirrored the tone of the questioning from the previous week. The OSHA rule now faces a stay that blocks its implementation, a decision that saw the court’s three liberal justices dissent. The reprieve from the HHS rules was lifted, but only by a narrow 5-4 decision.
The OSHA Decision
At issue is the law allowing OSHA to issue temporary emergency standards, which can be issued when “employees are at serious risk of exposure to substances or agents found to be toxic or physically harmful or to new dangers”. OSHA determined that COVID-19 posed a new hazard and presented evidence that the virus was often spreading in various workplaces. The agency’s rule would offer vaccination or testing and masking as options, and it would not apply to workplaces that could be shown to be at low risk of exposure.
The decision was made by the court as a whole and attached to a separate agreement from Justices Gorsuch, Thomas and Alito. The decision determined that those suing to block OSHA’s rule were likely to prevail, and it largely focused on the scope of the rule. He suggests the agency likely has the ability to regulate the risk of viral exposure in “particularly crowded or cramped environments,” but says infection “is not an occupational hazard in most cases.” [workplaces]”, which include things like landscapers and other professions that occur primarily outdoors. This conclusion is heavily disputed in the dissent, as discussed below.
The decision compares OSHA’s approach to “general public health measures” and does not distinguish between risks specific to the workplace and those that society faces more generally.
Gorsuch, Thomas and Alito’s agreement agrees that the rule will not survive legal challenges, but it attempts to place the decision in the context of their larger ideological battles over the scope of federal authority. They frequently mention the major issues doctrine, which suggests that agencies cannot take major regulatory action unless specifically directed by Congress. But they go further by suggesting that Congress doesn’t even have the right to give regulatory agencies that kind of authority: “If the statutory paragraph quoted by the agency really gave OSHA the power that she asserts, this law would likely constitute an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power”.
The dissent of Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan focuses on the plain language of the legislation that OSHA cites for authority, concluding that COVID-19 definitely qualifies as both a “grave danger” and a “new danger.” . He notes that the rule issued by OSHA was supported by detailed documentation of the spread in a variety of workplaces, not strictly cramped or overcrowded. The dissent blames the majority “for acting outside of its jurisdiction” by rejecting OSHA’s risk analysis, which was carried out by occupational safety experts.
As for the majority’s distinction between workplace and general hazards, the dissent notes that OSHA currently regulates hazards like fire and electrical issues without any legal issues.
- Biden’s vaccine warrants in Supreme Court
- Activision Blizzard lawsuit: a timeline of key events and everything you need to know
- OSHA will try a different route to a vaccine mandate for companies
- How Slack changed Apple’s employee culture, with Zoë Schiffer
- Judge blocks Biden vaccine rule, citing “interests of unvaccinated freedom”