The Supreme Court on Thursday blocked a Biden administration rule that required US companies with 100 employees or more to mandate that their staff be vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to weekly testing.
But the court also narrowly upheld a vaccine mandate for healthcare workers at facilities that receive federal funding.
By blocking the mandate for private companies, which would have covered more than 84 million workers, the court dealt a significant blow to the White House's efforts to curtail the pandemic at a time when hospitalizations have surged nationwide due to the spread of the Omicron variant.
"I am 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," President Joe Biden said in a statement.
In an opinion authored by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, six members of the court granted a request from the National Federation of Independent Business to prevent the Occupational Safety and Health Administration from enforcing the private employer rule for now.
The majority of justices said the NFIB was likely to succeed in court by arguing Biden's labor secretary lacked authority to impose the mandate.
They said the law that established OSHA "empowers the Secretary to set workplace safety standards, not broad public health measures."
"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 court said. "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 members — justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan — said in a dissenting opinion that they would have allowed the mandate to be enforced, calling COVID-19 a "menace in work settings."
They accused their colleagues on the court — "elected by, and accountable to, no one" — of acting inappropriately as workplace health and safety experts.
"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 liberal justices wrote. "As disease and death continue to mount, this Court tells the agency that it cannot respond in the most effective way possible."
But in a separate decision in which Kavanaugh and Chief Justice John Roberts joined the liberals, the court decided 5–4 that the secretary of health and human services was authorized under existing law to require facilities to ensure their staffs are vaccinated against COVID (unless exempt for religious or medical reasons) in order to receive Medicare and Medicaid funding.
"After all," they wrote, "ensuring that providers take steps to avoid
transmitting a dangerous virus to their patients is consistent with the fundamental principle of the medical profession: first, do no harm."
The decision will affect 10.4 million healthcare workers at some 76,000 medical facilities.
Four of the court's most conservative members — justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, and Amy Coney Barrett — said they would not have allowed that rule to go forward.
Republicans cheered the court for blocking the private sector mandate, calling it an unnecessary imposition on businesses.
"President Biden’s private sector vaccine mandate was always unwarranted and overbearing," Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi wrote on Twitter. "I am glad that the Supreme Court has curbed runaway executive overreach and ensured that individual liberty does not become a casualty of this pandemic."
But public health workers and scientists said the decision was deeply disappointing.
"As a physician and public health person I find this ruling very disappointing," said Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. "So many Americans have been poisoned with vaccine misinformation. Mandates work to protect them and those around them. This ruling will mean more suffering, more deaths, and more overwhelmed hospitals."
In his statement, Biden credited his vaccine mandates with reducing the number of unvaccinated Americans from 90 million to under 35 million.
He called on business leaders to still institute their own vaccine requirements for employees in order to protect staff and customers.
"The Court has ruled that my administration cannot use the authority granted to it by Congress to require this measure," Biden said, "but that does not stop me from using my voice as President to advocate for employers to do the right thing to protect Americans’ health and economy."
Like many Americans, the Supreme Court justices worked remotely and online during a long stretch of the pandemic. All nine members have since been vaccinated and received a booster shot, according to a court spokesperson.