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The Occupational Safety and Health Act, 29 U.S.C.S. § 651 et seq., empowers the Secretary of Labor to set workplace safety standards, not broad public health measures. 29 U.S.C.S. § 655(b). Confirming the point, the Act’s provisions typically speak to hazards that employees face at work. No provision of the Act addresses public health more generally, which falls outside of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s sphere of expertise.
The Secretary of Labor, acting through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), enacted a vaccine mandate requiring that covered workers receive a COVID-19 vaccine. The only exception was for workers who obtain a medical test each week at their own expense and on their own time, and also wear a mask each workday. Many States, businesses, and nonprofit organizations challenged OSHA’s rule in Courts of Appeals across the country. The Fifth Circuit initially entered a stay. But when the cases were consolidated before the Sixth Circuit, that court lifted the stay and allowed OSHA’s rule to take effect. The applicants were now seeking emergency relief from the United States Supreme Court, arguing that OSHA’s mandate exceeded its statutory authority and was otherwise unlawful.
Did the OSHA’s mandate exceed its statutory authority, thereby warranting the stay of the rule?
The Court granted the applications for stays. According to the Court, the applicants were likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that the Secretary of Labor lacked statutory authority to impose a COVID-19 vaccine mandate by rule, covering virtually all employers with at least 100 employees, because the Occupational Safety and Health Act, 29 U.S.C.S. § 651 et seq., did not authorize the mandate. The Act was limited to regulating hazards that employees faced at work, and the risk of contracting COVID-19 was not a work-related danger, but was a universal risk of daily life. Because the mandate extended beyond the agency’s legitimate reach, a stay of the rule was justified.