National Federation of Independent Business, et al.  v. Department of Labor, Occupational Health and Safety Administration, No. 21A244

Ohio, et al. v. Department of Labor, Occupational Health and Safety Administration, No. 21A247

Order and Opinion issued January 13, 2022 (S. Ct.)


The United States Supreme Court has issued an order staying the effect of an Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) requiring larger employers to adopt policies requiring and administer records concerning employees’ Covid-19 vaccination (the “vaccine mandate”).  OSHA’s regulation requires employers of more than 100 employees to require employees to be vaccinated against Covid-19, or face termination.  Employers may offer weekly testing and continuous masking as an alternative to vaccination at the employees’ expense. 

The vaccine mandate is estimated to affect 84 million workers nationally.  Employers who fail to comply face fines.  

Why the Supreme Court intervened to stay the effect of the OSHA vaccine mandate. Applying established legal standards governing issuance of a stay, the majority of the justices have concluded that the employers and the states challenging the vaccine mandate are likely to prevail on the merits of their claims.

No authority to be found. Nothing in the statute creating OSHA or any measures relating to the Covid-19 pandemic reflects Congressional intent to expand OSHA’s powers to regulate and to administer workplace safety to include public health matters in general, the justices observed.  OSHA’s emergency Covid-19 measure purports to preempt public health concerns traditionally reserved to the states.

This is no small measure. The unprecedented scope of the OSHA emergency regulation, undertaken without notice and comment procedures as an emergency measure excusing compliance, indicates the need for clear congressional authorization of a measure which would exercise powers of vast economic and political significance. Slip opinion (per curiam) at 6, citing Alabama Assn. of Realtors v. Department of Health and Human Servs., 594 U. S. ___, ___ (2021) (per curiam) (slip op., at 6).

OSHA is a  workplace, not a public health, administration. OSHA is authorized to implement measures to address workplace safety, but OSHA has no authority to act as a federal public health agency regulating daily life.

Some room to act may exist notwithstanding the stay.  Vaccination, the majority noted, cannot be undone at the work day’s end.  Although OSHA lacks the vast powers it has attempted to exercise, particular industry working conditions may indicate vaccination would support employee health and safety.  OSHA might develop targeted mandates, but the sweeping mandate before the Court is causally untethered to the workplace, and is without historic precedent that would indicate it to be apt. 

The balance favors the affected employers and employees. Not only is OSHA without authority to regulate vaccination, equity favors a stay, the Court’s majority noted, as billions in unrecoverable compliance costs and fines will be incurred by employers, and many would lose their employment because of the OSHA vaccine mandate.

Three justices concur.  Justices Gorsuch, Thomas and Alito joined in a concurrence outlining the importance of the Constitutional principles governing governance itself as applied to the OSHA vaccine mandate.

Constitutional constraints.  The Constitution cabins legislative powers by requiring any exercise of federal legislative power to be tied to an enumerated Constitutional power, as powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved to the states, as is true of public health regulation. Congress cannot elide its limits by conferring legislative powers on executive agencies.  Thus, when an executive agency undertakes vast new measures, its authority to take such actions must be clear (the “major questions” doctrine) and may not be indirectly assumed (the “nondelegation” doctrine).  

Fie on a burgeoning bureaucracy. These concepts are not mere academic footnotes, the concurrence asserts, but they act as fundamental guards against “government of bureaucracy supplanting government of the people.”  Concurrence Slip Op. at 6, citing Scalia, A. A Note on the Benzene Case, American Enterprise Institute, J. on Govt. & Soc., July–Aug. 1980, p. 27. 

The vaccine mandate is not good by any measure. Application of these principles supports the Court’s stay.  OSHA can locate no clear congressional authorization for its actions, and even if one were believed to exist, the vaccine mandate would violate nondelegation principles, as such authority would confer upon OSHA unlimited discretion without any meaningful specific limits.

Three justices dissent. Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan have dissented, opining that while examining the powers of coordinate branches, the Supreme Court has overstepped its limits as the majority has failed to recognize and to defer to agency expertise supporting the vaccine regulation, which regulation is of the very sort that OSHA exists to undertake.  

Up OSHA’s alley in any event. Workplace regulation is permissible even if similar hazards exist outside the workplace, and such regulation is apt where, as with the Covid-19 virus, workplace contagion is a recognized hazard which gravely threatens workers’ well-being.

The majority checks others’, but should also check itself. Although the majority focuses on the limits of legislative and executive powers, the majority fails to recognize that while executive agencies cannot act without legislative authorization, the Supreme Court may not read in or impose a limitation on agency action where none exists.  The Court has erred in issuing the stay, as the Court lacks the regulatory expertise that OSHA has.  Similarly, and also erroneously, the Court has incorrectly assessed the public interest served by OSHA’s undertaking measures to hinder the sickness and death the Covid-19 pandemic has precipitated. 

National Federation of Independent Business v. OSHA (01_13_2022)

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