WASHINGTON — The Biden administration overreached when it mandated COVID vaccinations for 84.2 million private-sector workers, failing to distinguish between the risks faced by lifeguards and meatpackers, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday, Jan. 13.
The 6-3 decision stayed a rule that would have required workers at businesses with more than 100 employees to be vaccinated. As an alternative, companies could have let workers stay on, but only if they wore masks and were tested weekly.
The court's majority said the rule was a "blunt instrument."
"Most lifeguards and linemen face the same regulations as do medics and meatpackers," the court wrote.
The rule would not have applied to employees who work "exclusively outdoors," potentially excluding some farmworkers. The court, however, said the exemption was "largely illusory."
The Labor Secretary estimated only 9% of landscapers and groundskeepers qualified for exemption, according to the court.
In a separate ruling Jan. 13, the court, in a 5-4 decision, upheld a Biden administration rule that will withhold Medicare and Medicaid payments from health-care services that don't require their employees to be vaccinated.
In a written statement, President Biden said he was happy about the health-care ruling.
"At the same time, 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," he said.
Justices Stephen Beyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented from staying the vaccination mandate for large employers.
They called COVID an "unparalleled threat" and said that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration had authority to protect workers from "grave dangers."
They accused the majority of displacing the "judgments of government officials" and "experts" and claimed the rule didn't actually require vaccinations.
"And, of course, the standard does not impose a vaccine mandate; it allows employers to require only masking and testing instead," according to their dissenting opinion.
The majority noted that employers were not required to test and mask as an option to vaccinations.
In a concurring opinion to court's ruling, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote that if an administrative agency seeks to regulate the daily lives of millions of Americans, it must have clear congressional authority.
Congress can't just hand off power to agencies, wrote Gorsuch in an opinion joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
"The answer is clear: Under the law as it stands today, that power rests with the states and Congress, not OSHA," he wrote.
Biden's vaccination mandate for large employers drew challenges from more than 60 groups. The Supreme Court consolidated suits brought by the National Federation of Independent Businesses and 27 states.