The Supreme Court delivered a major blow to the Biden administration Thursday by blocking the federal vaccine-or-test requirement for large companies, although it decided to permit a separate mandate affecting health care workers.
The decision on big businesses fell sharply in line with political leanings on the bench, with the six-member conservative majority voting against the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for companies with 100 or more employees. The three liberal justices—Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor—dissented.
"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 majority wrote in an unsigned opinion. "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 regulation was estimated to apply to more than 80 million private sector employees and required businesses to mandate vaccinations or weekly testing, which the federal government would pay for.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, had projected that the regulation would save over 6,500 lives and prevent 250,000 hospitalizations in the next six months.
In their dissent, Breyer, Kagan and Sotomayor said they believed the decision "seriously misapplies the applicable legal standards."
"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," the three justices said. "As disease and death continue to mount, this court tells the agency that it cannot respond in the most effective way possible.
In response to the ruling, President Joe Biden said he was disappointed that the Court chose to block "common-sense life-saving requirements for employees at large businesses."
"As a result of the Court’s decision, it is now up to States and individual employers to determine whether to make their workplaces as safe as possible for employees, and whether their businesses will be safe for consumers during this pandemic by requiring employees to take the simple and effective step of getting vaccinated," Biden said in a statement.
The president added that while the Court ruled his administration went beyond its authority with the vaccine mandate, he would use his voice to advocate for employers enforcing their own requirements.
"I call on business leaders to immediately join those who have already stepped up—including one-third of Fortune 100 companies—and institute vaccination requirements to protect their workers, customers, and communities," Biden said.
The Heritage Foundation, one of the groups challenging Biden’s mandate, applauded the Court’s ruling for "its agreement with this basic tenet of a well-functioning and free society."
"This mandate has never been about public health. It has always been a fig leaf for President Biden’s excuse to increase government control of the everyday lives of Americans," Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts said in a Thursday statement. "The court’s rebuke of this overreach is certainly welcome."
The Supreme Court on Thursday blocked the federal government’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate for companies with 100 or more employees. Anna Moneymaker/Getty
While the Court ruled against the mandate for large businesses, the justices did allow for federally funded health care facilities to mandate vaccinations among their workers nationwide.
Four of the six conservative justices—Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett—dissented from the decision on the health care workers mandate.
"These cases are not about the efficacy or importance of COVID-19 vaccines," the four justices wrote in their dissent. "They are only about whether CMS has the statutory authority to force healthcare workers, by coercing their employers, to undergo a medical procedure they do not want and cannot undo." (CMS is the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.)
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh joined the Court’s three liberals in the majority decision on the health care mandate.
The rulings come just three days after the two emergency mandates from OSHA, which oversees workplace safety for the Labor Department, were to take effect. Court challenges had kept the mandates from being implemented.
Besides asking workers at large companies to provide proof of vaccination or undergo weekly testing, the now banned mandate required unvaccinated workers to wear masks indoors while on the job.
Biden did thank the Court for upholding the vaccination requirement for health care workers, saying that decision would save "the lives of patients who seek care in medical facilities, as well as the lives of doctors, nurses, and others who work there."
"It will cover 10.4 million health care workers at 76,000 medical facilities," the president said. "We will enforce it."
Update 01/13/22, 4:28 p.m. ET: This story was updated with comments from President Biden.