Supreme Court Blocks OSHA Vaccine-Or-Test Rule

Frederick G. Sandstrom 

In a much-anticipated decision, the United States Supreme Court has blocked the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (“OSHA”) “vaccinate or test” Emergency Temporary Standard (“ETS”). The Court’s January 13, 2022, decision means that the ETS is stayed pending a hearing on the merits of the challenges to its validity. However, in practical terms, it is likely a death-knell for the ETS, which was set to expire in May 2022.

The Court’s per curiam opinion, written on behalf of the six conservative-leaning justices, held that the ETS exceeded OSHA’s statutory power because it sought to broadly regulate “public health” and was not directed specifically at workplace safety. The Court explained: “It is telling that OSHA, in its half century of existence, has never before adopted a broad public health regulation of this kind—addressing a threat that is untethered, in any causal sense, from the workplace.”

In a concurring opinion joined by Justices Thomas and Alito, Justice Gorsuch elaborated that the “major questions doctrine” requires Congress to delegate clearly and specifically to an agency the authority to mandate Covid-19 vaccination or testing. Absent a clear and specific delegation, the Constitution reserves that power to “the states and Congress, not OSHA.”

The Court’s three liberal-leaning justices dissented. The dissenting opinion, co-authored by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, asserted that the ETS fell squarely within OSHA’s emergency power because it was necessary to “protect employees” from a “grave danger” to workplace safety. The dissent argued further that, even if the merits of the ETS were reasonably in dispute, a stay would still be inappropriate because the “public interest” and “balance of harms” supported allowing the ETS to remain in effect. In conclusion, the dissent accused the majority’s decision of “undercut[ting] the capacity of the responsible federal officials, acting well within the scope of their authority, to protect American workers from grave danger.”

A final note: While fatal to the ETS, the Court’s decision likely is not the final word on broad workplace safety responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. Now that OSHA has been blocked from taking action, it is reasonable to expect that some state workplace safety agencies will become more active in adopting their own measures aimed at Covid-19 safety in the workplace. Stay tuned for more on the development of any new state-level rules and also on what happens with the ETS as it heads back to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

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