The 6-3 ruling handed down on Thursday is a major blow to Biden’s efforts to get the nation vaccinated as the states are setting records for positive cases and hospitalizations. The mandate would have covered over 80 million Americans, or around two-thirds of the nation’s workforce.
The majority argued that Covid is not an occupational hazard, despite the fact that most people who work are forced to do so in enclosed environments with other people, which is exactly where Covid spreads. “Although Covid-19 is a risk that occurs in many workplaces, it is not an occupational hazard in most,” the conservative justices wrote. “Covid-19 can and does spread at home, in schools, during sporting events, and everywhere else that people gather. That kind of universal risk is no different from the day-to-day dangers that all face from crime, air pollution, or any number of communicable diseases.”
The court did, however, narrowly uphold Biden’s mandate for most health care workers to be vaccinated, which is estimated to cover over 10 million frontline workers. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh sided with the court’s three liberal justices, on the grounds that the mandate covers health care workers who serve recipients of Medicare and Medicaid.
This isn’t the case for all private companies with 100 or more employees, though. The court determined that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which oversees workplace safety, does not have the authority to mandate employees of these companies be vaccinated. “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 decision read. “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.”
The court’s three liberal justices issued a joint dissenting opinion to the ruling.
“When we are wise, we know enough to defer on matters like this one,” they concluded. “When we are wise, we know not to displace the judgments of experts, acting within the sphere Congress marked out and under Presidential control, to deal with emergency conditions. Today, we are not wise. In the face of a still-raging pandemic, this Court tells the agency charged with protecting worker safety that it may not do so in all the workplaces needed. As disease and death continue to mount, this Court tells the agency that it cannot respond in the most effective way possible. Without legal basis, the Court usurps a decision that rightfully belongs to others. It undercuts the capacity of the responsible.”