The Latest Supreme Court Decisions on Employer COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates
What is the latest on from the Supreme Court on the vaccine mandates? Can your employer require you to receive the COVID-19 vaccination in order to keep your job? Will you have to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing and wear a mask in your workplace if you are unvaccinated? Is your employer properly complying with COVID-19 safety requirements?
The answers to these questions are rapidly evolving as courts grapple with these nuanced legal issues. However, the Supreme Court’s latest ruling on these issues provides some clarity. Your Ohio Employment Lawyers explain everything you need to know about current COVID-19 vaccination and testing laws in the workplace.
The OSHA Vaccination Mandate
Congress enacted the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970. This Act created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”), a government entity that is responsible for ensuring “safe and healthful working conditions.” OSHA has the power to create and enforce occupational safety and health standards that are “reasonably necessary or appropriate to provide safe or healthful employment.” OSHA also has the power to enact “emergency temporary standards” that can take immediate effect, but only if: (1) 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) the emergency standard is necessary to protect employees from the danger.
OSHA used its emergency authority to enact an Emergency Temporary Standard related to COVID-19 on November 5, 2021. This standard required nearly all businesses with 100 or more employees to mandate COVID-19 vaccination for their employees. If employees chose to remain unvaccinated, the standard required these employees to obtain negative COVID-19 tests on a weekly basis and wear a mask in the workplace. The standard was set to be in place for 6 months.
Legal Challenges and the Supreme Court’s Ruling
Throughout the country, legal challenges to OSHA’s rule immediately arose. Challengers argued the rule was not authorized by the Occupational Safety and Health Act and exceeded OSHA’s authority. They argued the rule impermissibly intruded into individuals’ private lives and personal health decisions. Proponents argued the rule was necessary to ensure workplace safety and prevent the spread of a deadly virus.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals initially placed a temporary block, known as a “stay,” on the enforcement of OSHA’s rule. However, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with this holding and lifted the stay. The United States Supreme Court then heard arguments on this issue to resolve the inconsistent rulings.
On January 13, 2022, the Supreme Court ruled that the Occupational Safety and Health Act does not authorize the rule that OSHA proposed. As a result, the temporary block on enforcement of OSHA’s rule is now back in effect. The Supreme Court criticized OSHA’s rule as overly broad and stated that it is “a significant encroachment into the lives – and health – of a vast number of employees.”
In addition, the Supreme Court also found that the risks posed by COVID-19 are not uniquely “occupational” hazards – such that OSHA would have regulation power. The Court reasoned that while COVID-19 can be spread in the workplace, it can also be spread wherever individuals gather – whether on or off the clock. Since COVID-19 can be compared to other “day to day” dangers, such as crime, pollution, or other contagious diseases, the Court ruled that the Occupational Safety and Health Act does not authorize OSHA to impose vaccination rules in the workplace.
Importantly, the Supreme Court’s ruling did not completely eliminate OSHA’s rule. Instead, it upheld legal challengers’ requests for a temporary block on its enforcement. The case was sent back to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to make the ultimate determination on whether the rule can be permanently blocked.
How This Will Affect Your Workplace
Employers are currently not required to follow OSHA’s rule on mandatory vaccination and testing. However, private sector employers may still choose to follow these requirements voluntarily or enact their own requirements on vaccination and/or COVID-19 testing and mask use. Employers are also required to comply with industry-specific vaccination or testing requirements or other COVID-19 safety requirements mandated by state or local law. However, employers who require COVID-19 vaccination must still consider exemption requests for individuals with disabilities and/or individuals with religious objections to receiving the vaccine.
If you have questions about your employer’s COVID-19 policies, or if you believe you qualify for an exemption, reach out to us today to schedule a free consultation.
Employment Attorneys, Columbus, Ohio
 29 U.S.C. § 651(b).
 29 U.S.C. § 652(8).
 29 U.S.C. § 655(c)(1).