US Supreme Court blocks COVID vaccine mandate for businesses

The US’s top court rules Biden administration overstepped its authority in trying to advance rule for large employers.

A health worker administers a COVID jab in a woman's shoulder
The Biden administration's rule would have required workers at US businesses with at least 100 employees to either be vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing [File: Bing Guan/Reuters]

The United States Supreme Court has blocked Joe Biden’s effort to require employees at large businesses to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing, a measure the US president has described as “common-sense”.

At the same time, the top court on Thursday ruled in favour of allowing the federal government to proceed with a vaccine mandate for most healthcare workers in the country.

The court, which has a conservative majority, said the Biden administration overstepped its authority by seeking to impose the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) rule requiring workers at US businesses with at least 100 employees to either be vaccinated or tested weekly.

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-19 pandemic, it has declined to enact any measure similar to what OSHA has promulgated here,” the court wrote in an unsigned opinion.

“It is instead a significant encroachment on the lives – and health – of a vast number of employees.”

Person getting vaccine shot
Challengers of the vaccine mandates argued that the two federal agencies overstepped their authority [File: Charles Krupa/AP Photo]

The Supreme Court’s decision comes as coronavirus infections linked to the highly contagious Omicron variant are rising across the US, where COVID-19 has already killed more than 845,000 people – the highest death toll in the world.

The cases also underscore how divisive the issue of mandatory vaccinations has become in the country, where many Republicans have been critical of mandates imposed by governments and businesses.

The White House had said the two mandates would save lives and strengthen the US economy by increasing the number of vaccinated Americans by the millions, while challengers argued that the federal agencies overstepped their authority by issuing the mandates without specific authorisation from Congress.

In a statement on Thursday, Biden said the Supreme Court’s ruling upholding the healthcare vaccine mandate “will save lives: the lives of patients who seek care in medical facilities, as well as the lives of doctors, nurses, and others who work there”.

The mandate requires vaccination for an estimated 10.3 million workers at about 76,000 healthcare facilities, including hospitals and nursing homes that serve the elderly, disabled and low-income Americans.

But Biden said he was “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”.

Group photo of the Supreme Court justices
The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 with the six conservative justices in the majority and three liberal justices dissenting in blocking the broader workplace ruling. [Erin Schaff/The New York Times via AP]

“This emergency standard allowed employers to require vaccinations or to permit workers to refuse to be vaccinated, so long as they were tested once a week and wore a mask at work: a very modest burden,” his statement read.

The Supreme Court ruled 6-3, with the six conservative justices in the majority and three liberal justices dissenting, to block the broader workplace mandate.

The vote was 5-4 to allow the healthcare worker rule, with two conservatives, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh, joining the liberals in the majority.

More than 208 million Americans, 62.7 percent of the population, are fully vaccinated, and more than a third of those have received booster shots, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies