WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court Friday called a Biden administration rule requiring large companies to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for employees “staggeringly overbroad” and ordered that its implementation remain blocked in a divisive case likely bound for the Supreme Court.
Businesses with 100 or more employees had been required under the rule to stand up vaccine or regular testing requirements by Jan. 4 or face penalties of nearly $14,000 per violation under an emergency Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule made public this month.
But the emergency regulation prompted more than two dozen lawsuits from conservative states and businesses questioning whether the federal agency responsible for ensuring workplace safety has the power to impose requirements for fighting a pandemic.
The New Orleans-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit blocked implementation of the regulation Friday after temporarily freezing it over the weekend. Among the plaintiffs: The states of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina.
A three judge panel called the rule “fatally flawed” and said it “grossly exceeds OSHA’s statutory authority.” According to the court, “however devastating and tragic” COVID-19 was, the rule “grossly exceeds OSHA’s statutory authority.”
You can appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. The Justice Department did not respond immediately to our request for comment.
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The court battles are focused on whether OSHA has the authority under a 1970 law to require companies to ensure workers are vaccinated or tested. The move is expected to reach millions of Americans at work, increasing the availability of coronavirus vaccines. Critics argue that COVID-19 does not pose a risk to workplace safety and that it’s too broad for the Administration’s use.
“This lawsuit concerns the latest attempt by the Biden administration to leverage the COVID-19 pandemic into a justification to reconfigure massive sectors of the American economy,” the plaintiffs argued in court papers, asserting that COVID-19 isn’t within the agency’s authority to regulate toxic “agents” or “substances.”
According to the administration, the “risk-mitigation strategies” that it seeks “will protect workers unvaccinated against serious consequences of COVID-19 infections and lower the prevalence of COVID-19 viruses at work” were rejected.
The dispute will likely work its way up to the Supreme Court – but the timing of the appeals court proceedings isn’t yet clear. Federal law involves a unique procedure that allows for the consolidation of lawsuits brought against federal agencies in an emergency regulation. In this case, an appeals court will randomly choose which one is merged.
The Biden administration had requested that the 5th Circuit wait to decide on issuing an injunction until the appeals court that will hear the merged case is selected.
The Supreme Court has repeatedly turned away emergency appeals seeking to block the enforcement of vaccine mandates in other contexts. In August, it declined to halt Indiana University’s vaccine requirement. In early October, it declined to halt a New York City requirement that public school teachers receive COVID-19 vaccinations.
Most recently, the court late last month declined to block a vaccine mandate for health care workers in Maine over objections that it didn’t include a religious exemption.
These cases were all about emergency actions to temporarily stop mandates from being implemented, rather than more fundamental constitutional questions. The cases involved local and state governments which are granted greater public safety powers that the federal government.