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High Court blocks COVID vaccine mandate for business, allows in healthcare

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling Thursday striking down a COVID vaccine mandate for large employers is a blow to the Biden administration’s strategy for curbing COVID-19. (Shutterstock)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday blocked the Biden administration’s federal vaccine-or-get-tested mandate for large employers, saying it was an overreach to target workplaces where COVID-19 is not an “occupational hazard.”

If upheld, the mandate would have impacted an estimated two million Michigan workers and 84 million people across the country. Some Michigan business leaders expressed their relief after the decision. 


“We strongly support the United States Supreme Court’s decision to block the federal vaccine or test mandate,” said Wendy Block, vice president of government affairs for the Michigan Chamber and spokesperson for the Listen to MI Business Coalition, which had urged Biden to reverse the mandate before it headed into the courts.

“The court fully acknowledged the sweeping and disruptive nature of OSHA’s vaccine mandate and the numerous complexities associated with its implementation,” Block said. “We will continue to encourage vaccines and the necessity of maintaining thoughtful safety protocols in the workplace.” 

In a separate ruling, the Supreme Court narrowly backed a Biden vaccinate-or-test rule for health workers at medical facilities that accept Medicare or Medicaid payments. 

The large-employers mandate — announced in September by President Joe Biden — drew challenges from across the country as business groups and some workers resisted the order, which was to take effect this past Monday, with enforcement to begin in February.

Biden and health officials had said the mandate was necessary to stem the spread of COVID-19. Over recent weeks, both the state and nation are recording record levels of the omicron-fueled virus, noting that unvaccinated people are most at risk for hospitalization and death.

Employers of 100 or more people were told to mandate COVID-19 vaccines or have the workers undergo weekly medical testing at their own expense, according to rules on the mandate released by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Fines ranging from $13,653 to $136,532 were set for violations.

Challenges filed from across the country said the rules were an overreach for the department that regulates workplace safety, and that the mandate represented executive overreach without the proper approval needed from Congress.

In a 6-3 split decision on the employer mandate, the nation’s highest court agreed. The court’s three liberal justices dissented. 

OSHA is empowered “to set workplace safety standards, not broad public health measures,” the Supreme Court majority said in its ruling.

“Although COVID– 19 is a risk that occurs in many workplaces, it is not an occupational hazard in most,” according to the opinion. “COVID–19 can and does spread at home, in schools, during sporting events, and everywhere else that people gather. 

That means the risk “is no different from the day-to-day dangers that all face from crime, air pollution, or any number of communicable diseases. Permitting OSHA to regulate the hazards of daily life — simply because most Americans have jobs and face those same risks while on the clock — would significantly expand OSHA’s regulatory authority without clear congressional authorization.”

Among the reasons, it added, were that all types of jobs were treated the same under the OSHA mandate, including those that faced less risk from the virus.

“The regulation … operates as a blunt instrument,” according to the ruling. “It draws no distinctions based on industry or risk of exposure.”

Some Michigan business leaders applauded the move. Many — already in the midst of a labor shortage — had feared the mandate would cause some of their workers who resisted becoming vaccinated against COVID to quit.

Brian Calley, president and CEO of the Small Business Association of Michigan, said he welcomed the decision.

“This is going to be a big help in terms of creating certainty and avoiding the types of workforce challenges we were concerned about,” Calley said Thursday during a Facebook live event.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, had recently called the business mandate “a problem” for Michigan businesses, while fellow Democrat Attorney General Dana Nessel backed the mandate.

In the separate 5-4 ruling allowing the vaccine mandate at hospitals and other healthcare facilities that accept Medicare and Medicaid payments, the court said the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was within its authority to set the requirements, since “vaccination requirements are a common feature of the provision of healthcare in America:”

“(H)ealthcare facilities that wish to participate in Medicare and Medicaid have always been obligated to satisfy a host of conditions that address the safe and effective provision of healthcare,” the court wrote.

The rule applies to staff, contractors and volunteers. It took effect on December 6.

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