The Supreme Court on Thursday blocked the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for employers with at least 100 employees.
On November 4, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) ordered all companies with at least 100 employees to ensure that they were either vaccinated against COVID-19 or tested weekly. The order was immediately met with opposition, including from The Daily Wire, which was the first business to sue the Biden administration in the Sixth Circuit.
This was the first time since 1970 that the Supreme Court heard a case over a stay, and the majority of justices signaled their opposition to the rule during hearings last Friday.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court blocked the vaccine mandate in a 6-3 decision, with all conservative justices concurring, and the three liberal justices dissenting.
Read the decision and the majority opinion below:
The Secretary of Labor, acting through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, recently enacted a vaccine mandate for much of the Nation’s work force. The mandate, which employers must enforce, applies to roughly 84 million workers, covering virtually all employers with at least 100 employees. It requires that covered workers receive a COVID–19 vaccine, and it pre-empts contrary state laws. The only exception is for workers who obtain a medical test each week at their own expense and on their own time, and also wear a mask each workday. OSHA has never before imposed such a mandate. Nor has Congress. Indeed, although Congress has enacted significant legislation addressing the COVID–19 pandemic, it has declined to enact any measure similar to what OSHA has promulgated here.
Many States, businesses, and nonprofit organizations challenged OSHA’s rule in Courts of Appeals across the country. The Fifth Circuit initially entered a stay. But when the cases were consolidated before the Sixth Circuit, that court lifted the stay and allowed OSHA’s rule to take effect. Applicants now seek emergency relief from this Court, arguing that OSHA’s mandate exceeds its statutory authority and is otherwise unlawful. Agreeing that applicants are likely to prevail, we grant their applications and stay the rule.
Congress enacted the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970. 84 Stat. 1590, 29 U. S. C. §651 et seq. The Act created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which is part of the Department of Labor and under the supervision of its Secretary. As its name suggests, OSHA is tasked with ensuring occupational safety— that is, “safe and healthful working conditions.” §651(b). It does so by enforcing occupational safety and health standards promulgated by the Secretary. §655(b). Such standards must be “reasonably necessary or appropriate to provide safe or healthful employment.” §652(8) (emphasis added). They must also be developed using a rigorous process that includes notice, comment, and an opportunity for a public hearing. §655(b).
The Act contains an exception to those ordinary noticeand-comment procedures for “emergency temporary standards.” §655(c)(1). Such standards may “take immediate effect upon publication in the Federal Register.” Ibid. They are permissible, however, only in the narrowest of circumstances: the Secretary must show (1) “that employees are exposed to grave danger from exposure to substances or agents determined to be toxic or physically harmful or from new hazards,” and (2) that the “emergency standard is necessary to protect employees from such danger.” Ibid. Prior to the emergence of COVID–19, the Secretary had used this power just nine times before (and never to issue a rule as broad as this one). Of those nine emergency rules, six were challenged in court, and only one of those was upheld in full. See BST Holdings, L.L.C. v. Occupational Safety and Health Admin., 17 F. 4th 604, 609 (CA5 2021).
On September 9, 2021, President Biden announced “a new plan to require more Americans to be vaccinated.” Remarks on the COVID–19 Response and National Vaccination Efforts, 2021 Daily Comp. of Pres. Doc. 775, p. 2. As part of that plan, the President said that the Department of Labor would issue an emergency rule requiring all employers with at least 100 employees “to ensure their workforces are fully vaccinated or show a negative test at least once a week.” Ibid. The purpose of the rule was to increase vaccination rates at “businesses all across America.” Ibid. In tandem with other planned regulations, the administration’s goal was to impose “vaccine requirements” on “about 100 million Americans, two-thirds of all workers.” Id., at 3.
After a 2-month delay, the Secretary of Labor issued the promised emergency standard. 86 Fed. Reg. 61402 (2021). Consistent with President Biden’s announcement, the rule applies to all who work for employers with 100 or more employees. There are narrow exemptions for employees who work remotely “100 percent of the time” or who “work exclusively outdoors,” but those exemptions are largely illusory. Id., at 61460. The Secretary has estimated, for example, that only nine percent of landscapers and groundskeepers qualify as working exclusively outside. Id., at 61461. The regulation otherwise operates as a blunt instrument. It draws no distinctions based on industry or risk of exposure to COVID–19. Thus, most lifeguards and linemen face the same regulations as do medics and meatpackers. OSHA estimates that 84.2 million employees are subject to its mandate. Id., at 61467.
Covered employers must “develop, implement, and enforce a mandatory COVID–19 vaccination policy.” Id., at 61402. The employer must verify the vaccination status of each employee and maintain proof of it. Id., at 61552. The mandate does contain an “exception” for employers that require unvaccinated workers to “undergo [weekly] COVID– 19 testing and wear a face covering at work in lieu of vaccination.” Id., at 61402. But employers are not required to offer this option, and the emergency regulation purports to pre-empt state laws to the contrary. Id., at 61437. Unvaccinated employees who do not comply with OSHA’s rule must be “removed from the workplace.” Id., at 61532. And employers who commit violations face hefty fines: up to $13,653 for a standard violation, and up to $136,532 for a willful one. 29 CFR §1903.15(d) (2021).
OSHA published its vaccine mandate on November 5, 2021. Scores of parties—including States, businesses, trade groups, and nonprofit organizations—filed petitions for review, with at least one petition arriving in each regional Court of Appeals. The cases were consolidated in the Sixth Circuit, which was selected at random pursuant to 28 U. S. C. §2112(a).
Prior to consolidation, however, the Fifth Circuit stayed OSHA’s rule pending further judicial review. BST Holdings, 17 F. 4th 604. It held that the mandate likely exceeded OSHA’s statutory authority, raised separation-ofpowers concerns in the absence of a clear delegation from Congress, and was not properly tailored to the risks facing different types of workers and workplaces.
When the consolidated cases arrived at the Sixth Circuit, two things happened. First, many of the petitioners—nearly 60 in all—requested initial hearing en banc. Second, OSHA asked the Court of Appeals to vacate the Fifth Circuit’s existing stay. The Sixth Circuit denied the request for initial hearing en banc by an evenly divided 8-to-8 vote. In re MCP No. 165, 20 F. 4th 264 (2021). Chief Judge Sutton dissented, joined by seven of his colleagues. He reasoned that the Secretary’s “broad assertions of administrative power demand unmistakable legislative support,” which he found lacking. Id., at 268. A three-judge panel then dissolved the Fifth Circuit’s stay, holding that OSHA’s mandate was likely consistent with the agency’s statutory and constitutional authority. See In re MCP No. 165, 2021 WL 5989357, ___ F. 4th ___ (CA6 2021). Judge Larsen dissented.
Various parties then filed applications in this Court requesting that we stay OSHA’s emergency standard. We consolidated two of those applications—one from the National Federation of Independent Business, and one from a coalition of States—and heard expedited argument on January 7, 2022.
The Sixth Circuit concluded that a stay of the rule was not justified. We disagree.
Applicants are likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that the Secretary lacked authority to impose the mandate. Administrative agencies are creatures of statute. They accordingly possess only the authority that Congress has provided. The Secretary has ordered 84 million Americans to either obtain a COVID–19 vaccine or undergo weekly medical testing at their own expense. This is no “everyday exercise of federal power.” In re MCP No. 165, 20 F. 4th, at 272 (Sutton, C. J., dissenting). It is instead a significant encroachment into the lives—and health—of a vast number of employees. “We expect Congress to speak clearly when authorizing an agency to exercise powers of vast economic and political significance.” Alabama Assn. of Realtors v. Department of Health and Human Servs., 594 U. S. ___, ___ (2021) (per curiam) (slip op., at 6) (internal quotation marks omitted). There can be little doubt that OSHA’s mandate qualifies as an exercise of such authority.
The question, then, is whether the Act plainly authorizes the Secretary’s mandate. It does not. The Act empowers the Secretary to set workplace safety standards, not broad public health measures. See 29 U. S. C. §655(b) (directing the Secretary to set “occupational safety and health standards” (emphasis added)); §655(c)(1) (authorizing the Secretary to impose emergency temporary standards necessary to protect “employees” from grave danger in the workplace). Confirming the point, the Act’s provisions typically speak to hazards that employees face at work. See, e.g., §§651, 653, 657. And no provision of the Act addresses public health more generally, which falls outside of OSHA’s sphere of expertise.
The dissent protests that we are imposing “a limit found no place in the governing statute.” Post, at 7 (joint opinion of BREYER, SOTOMAYOR, and KAGAN, JJ.). Not so. It is the text of the agency’s Organic Act that repeatedly makes clear that OSHA is charged with regulating “occupational” hazards and the safety and health of “employees.” See, e.g., 29 U. S. C. §§652(8), 654(a)(2), 655(b)–(c).
The Solicitor General does not dispute that OSHA is limited to regulating “work-related dangers.” Response Brief for OSHA in No. 21A244 etc., p. 45 (OSHA Response). She instead argues that the risk of contracting COVID–19 qualifies as such a danger. We cannot agree. Although COVID– 19 is a risk that occurs in many workplaces, it is not an occupational hazard in most. COVID–19 can and does spread at home, in schools, during sporting events, and everywhere else that people gather. That kind of universal 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.
The dissent contends that OSHA’s mandate is comparable to a fire or sanitation regulation imposed by the agency. See post, at 7–9. But a vaccine mandate is strikingly unlike the workplace regulations that OSHA has typically imposed. A vaccination, after all, “cannot be undone at the end of the workday.” In re MCP No. 165, 20 F. 4th, at 274 (Sutton, C. J., dissenting). Contrary to the dissent’s contention, imposing a vaccine mandate on 84 million Americans in response to a worldwide pandemic is simply not “part of what the agency was built for.” Post, at 10.
That is not to say OSHA lacks authority to regulate occupation-specific risks related to COVID–19. Where the virus poses a special danger because of the particular features of an employee’s job or workplace, targeted regulations are plainly permissible. We do not doubt, for example, that OSHA could regulate researchers who work with the COVID–19 virus. So too could OSHA regulate risks associated with working in particularly crowded or cramped environments. But the danger present in such workplaces differs in both degree and kind from the everyday risk of contracting COVID–19 that all face. OSHA’s indiscriminate approach fails to account for this crucial distinction— between occupational risk and risk more generally—and accordingly the mandate takes on the character of a general public health measure, rather than an “occupational safety or health standard.” 29 U. S. C. §655(b) (emphasis added).
In looking for legislative support for the vaccine mandate, the dissent turns to the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, Pub. L. 117–2, 135 Stat. 4. See post, at 8. That legislation, signed into law on March 11, 2021, of course said nothing about OSHA’s vaccine mandate, which was not announced until six months later. In fact, the most noteworthy action concerning the vaccine mandate by either House of Congress has been a majority vote of the Senate disapproving the regulation on December 8, 2021. S. J. Res. 29, 117th Cong., 1st Sess. (2021).
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. This “lack of historical precedent,” coupled with the breadth of authority that the Secretary now claims, is a “telling indication” that the mandate extends beyond the agency’s legitimate reach. Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Bd., 561 U. S. 477, 505 (2010) (internal quotation marks omitted).
The equities do not justify withholding interim relief. We are told by the States and the employers that OSHA’s mandate will force them to incur billions of dollars in unrecoverable compliance costs and will cause hundreds of thousands of employees to leave their jobs. See Application in No. 21A244, pp. 25–32; Application in No. 21A247, pp. 32– 33; see also 86 Fed. Reg. 61475. For its part, the Federal Government says that the mandate will save over 6,500 lives and prevent hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations. OSHA Response 83; see also 86 Fed. Reg. 61408.
It is not our role to weigh such tradeoffs. In our system of government, that is the responsibility of those chosen by the people through democratic processes. 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. 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 applications for stays presented to JUSTICE KAVANAUGH and by him referred to the Court are granted.
OSHA’s COVID–19 Vaccination and Testing; Emergency Temporary Standard, 86 Fed. Reg. 61402, is stayed pending disposition of the applicants’ petitions for review in the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and disposition of the applicants’ petitions for writs of certiorari, if such writs are timely sought. Should the petitions for writs of certiorari be denied, this order shall terminate automatically. In the event the petitions for writs of certiorari are granted, the order shall terminate upon the sending down of the judgment of this Court.
It is so ordered.
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