Your Office Can Get You Sick Now and That’s Fine, Supreme Court Says

The guy in the cubicle next to you can do whatever he wants, basically.
People wait in line at a walk-up vaccination site in Washington, DC, on November 29, 2021.
People wait in line at a walk-up vaccination site in Washington, DC, on November 29, 2021. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP via Getty Images)

So much for President Joe Biden’s big plan to vaccinate your whole office. 

The Supreme Court’s conservative majority just torpedoed Biden’s attempt to order large businesses to require either vaccinations or testing, in a move that brings massive implications for the future of the pandemic. 

Biden’s plan had involved ordering companies with 100 or more employees to require their staff get vaccinated or tested regularly for COVID, or else face a nearly $14,000 fine per violation. The rules would have covered roughly two-thirds of the private sector workforce, or some 80 million people. Now, it’s officially on hold, because the court said it’s likely to be found unconstitutional after further consideration. 

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The court did leave in place another order requiring healthcare workers to be vaccinated, but by striking down Biden’s most ambitious anti-COVID plan yet, it set a benchmark from the country’s highest court that redraws the line between individual decisions and public safety. 

Only two justices were in the majority of both orders: Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh.  

A group of businesses and GOP-led states had asked the court to block the workplace requirements.

Preliminary parts of Biden’s mandate were supposed to go into effect on Monday, although the administration had said it wouldn’t start fully enforcing the rules until Feb. 9. 

But the court’s order on Thursday criticized the broad mandate as a “blunt instrument” that fails to distinguish between the many different types of jobs Americans perform.

“It draws no distinctions based on industry or risk of exposure to COVID–19,” the order states. “Thus, most lifeguards and linemen face the same regulations as do medics and meatpackers.”

The Biden administration had estimated that the mandate might prevent a minimum of 250,000 hospitalizations and thousands of deaths

The agency tasked with implementing the order, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, has never done anything exactly like this before, the court noted. 

The court did leave the door open for future rule-making by OSHA that could be more tightly tailored to specific workplaces, however. 

“That is not to say OSHA lacks authority to regulate occupation-specific risks related to COVID–19,” the order states. “Where the virus poses a special danger because of the particular features of an employee’s job or workplace, targeted regulations are plainly permissible.”

Such examples might include researchers studying COVID-19, or those who work “in particularly crowded or cramped environments.”

But for now, the broad version rule cannot stand, the court said—and that decision, for the moment, sends the Biden administration back to the drawing board for a new plan to get more Americans vaccinated.