A federal appeals court gave the green light for President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for large private employers to be implemented as it reversed a previous decision that had put it on hold. The final say over the mandate, which affects some 84 million workers across the United States, will likely rest in the hands of the Supreme Court as opponents immediately filed appeals.
The split ruling by the three-judge panel of the Ohio-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit overturned a ruling last month by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans, that had blocked the rule. When it was initially unveiled, the mandate from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was supposed to take effect Jan. 4. On Saturday, the Department of Labor said workers who aren’t vaccinated won’t have to be regularly tested until Feb. 9. The delay is to “account for any uncertainty” that may have been sparked by the legal challenges, the department said.
The rule for large private employers was unveiled shortly after Biden announced in September that his administration would put in place several rules to increase vaccination rates as a way of combating the pandemic that has killed more than 800,000 Americans. OSHA issued the rule regarding large employers last month that required companies with 100 or more employees to require vaccination of most workers. Those who aren’t vaccinated would have to wear masks indoors and undergo weekly COVID-19 tests. The rules, which would not apply to those who work outdoors or only from home, was challenged by several Republican-led states, private businesses and conservative legal groups.
In the ruling Friday, the majority said that the mandate falls well within OSHA’s authority and there’s clear evidence to justify the rule. “It is difficult to imagine what more OSHA could do or rely on to justify its finding that workers face a grave danger in the workplace,” reads the majority opinion. “It is not appropriate to second-guess that agency determination considering the substantial evidence, including many peer-reviewed scientific studies, on which it relied.” The 2-1 ruling had Judge Jane Stranch, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, and Judge Julia Gibbons, appointed by President George W. Bush, in the majority. Judge Joan Larsen, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, was the lone dissenter.
The White House welcomed the ruling, which comes at a time when public health officials are warning a surge of COVID-19 cases is imminent as the more transmissible omicron variant continues to spread rapidly. “The OSHA vaccination or testing rule will ensure businesses enact measures that will protect their employees,” Kevin Munoz, a White House spokesman, said in a statement. “Especially as the U.S. faces the highly transmissible Omicron variant, it’s critical we move forward with vaccination requirements and protections for workers with the urgency needed in this moment.”
At least three petitions were almost immediately filed with the Supreme Court asking the justices to block the mandate. A group of business groups warned that the mandate could lead lots of people to quit their jobs. “The resulting labor upheaval will devastate already fragile supply chains and labor markets at the peak holiday season,” reads the petition.
*This post has been updated with new information since it was first published.