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Florida’s large employers saw some relief Thursday from being whipsawed by contradictory state and federal laws that govern COVID vaccine mandates: The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Biden administration directive that large private companies require their employees to get inoculated.
“You don’t have to worry anymore,” said Peter H. Meyers, professor emeritus at George Washington University Law School in Washington. D.C. “It is the Florida law which is applicable.”
But the court allowed the federal government to authorize a mandate for health care workers at facilities that receive federal funding.
Florida employment law analysts said that clarity was what businesses really longed for as the Biden administration sought to use the authority of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to impose COVID vaccine requirements on employers with 100 or more people on the payroll.
As President Biden campaigned for more ways to expand vaccinations nationally, the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis led a charge in the Republican-dominated state Legislature to bar employers from requiring vaccines unless they made a series of accommodations to workers who did not want the jab.
Under legislation passed last fall, local Florida governments can’t impose vaccine mandates on employees. But private businesses with vaccine requirements must offer exemptions for medical or religious reasons, or if a worker has previously had COVID-19. Any worker who agrees to wear a mask and be tested regularly must be exempted as well.
Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office is empowered to investigate complaints, and given a $5 million budget under the bill to do so.
“It was like mom saying you could do something and dad saying you can’t, so who are you going to listen to?” said Jay Starkman, founder and CEO of Engage PEO, a human resources consulting firm in Fort Lauderdale.
Starkman said Thursday’s high court decision itself changes little for companies because many were simply waiting to see how the justices would rule.
“No one has done much. Everybody was waiting to see,” he said. “I don’t think this changes much in the world. It would have changed a lot if they had upheld the mandate.”
A number of Florida firms followed the advice of their lawyers who urged them to be prepared to follow the federal mandate if it survived the court’s scrutiny. To do otherwise would have been foolhardy, analysts said, because of heavy fines the U.S. government was prepared to levy if companies missed deadlines that were set for the end of this month and in February.
“There are some people that say the mandate was effective because as soon as it came out some people got vaccinated who wouldn’t have gotten vaccinated,” Starkman said.
The federal requirement called for employees at large businesses to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing and wear a mask on the job.
The court’s orders Thursday during a spike in coronavirus cases was a mixed bag for the administration’s efforts to boost the vaccination rate among Americans.
The court’s conservative majority concluded the administration overstepped its authority by seeking to impose OSHA’s vaccine-or-test rule on U.S. businesses with at least 100 employees. More than 80 million people would have been affected.
“OSHA has never before imposed such a mandate. Nor has Congress. Indeed, although Congress has enacted significant legislation addressing the COVID–19 pandemic, it has declined to enact any measure similar to what OSHA has promulgated here,” the conservatives wrote in an unsigned opinion.
In dissent, the court’s three liberals argued that it was the court that was overreaching by substituting its judgment for that of health experts. “Acting outside of its competence and without legal basis, the Court displaces the judgments of the Government officials given the responsibility to respond to workplace health emergencies,” Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a joint dissent.
The White House always anticipated legal challenges — and privately some harbored doubts the mandates would stand.
The administration nonetheless still views the rule as a success at already driving millions of people to get vaccinated and for private businesses to implement their own requirements that are unaffected by the legal challenge.
Both rules had been challenged by Republican-led states, including Florida.
In addition, business groups attacked the OSHA emergency regulation as too expensive and likely to cause workers to leave their jobs at a time when finding new employees already is difficult.
Health care mandate stands
The vaccine mandate that the court will allow to be enforced nationwide scraped by on a 5-4 vote, with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh joining the liberals to form a majority. The mandate covers virtually all health care workers in the country, applying to providers that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid funding.
It potentially affects 76,000 health care facilities as well as home health care providers. The rule has medical and religious exemptions.
The challenges posed by a global pandemic do not allow a federal agency to exercise power that Congress has not conferred upon it. At the same time, such unprecedented circumstances provide no grounds for limiting the exercise of authorities the agency has long been recognized to have, the court wrote in an unsigned opinion, saying the “latter principle governs” in the health care cases.
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Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in dissent that the case was about whether the administration has the authority “to force healthcare workers, by coercing their employers, to undergo a medical procedure they do not want and cannot undo.” He said the administration hadn’t shown convincingly that Congress gave it that authority.
Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett signed onto Thomas’ opinion. Alito wrote a separate dissent that the other three conservatives also joined.
At the same time, the court is allowing the administration to proceed with a vaccine mandate for most health care workers in the U.S.
More than 208 million Americans, 62.7% of the population, are fully vaccinated, and more than a third of those have received booster shots, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All nine justices have gotten booster shots.
A separate vaccine mandate for federal contractors, on hold after lower courts blocked it, has not been considered by the Supreme Court.
Information from The Associated Press was used to supplement this news article.
A Florida police officer was hospitalized Monday evening after a crash with two other vehicles, according to authorities.
At around 5:15 p.m., a crash involving an Ocala officer was reported outside of a residential area at the intersection of West Silver Springs Boulevard and Southwest 23rd Avenue, Ocala Police Department said.
The officer was listed as a “trauma alert” but is expected to be okay, OPD said.
Orlando residents woke up to a chilly start Tuesday morning, with temperatures projected to stay cold today.
Temperatures before sunrise were 42 degrees in the City Beautiful, which should later see temperature highs increase to 64 as skies are forecast to remain sunny, according to Maureen McCann From Spectrum of the News 13 weather team.
Tuesday’s low will fall back down to 45 in the evening.
“Future cast has us with sunshine for our Tuesday and clear skies tonight, but tomorrow a southeasterly wind will start to develop during the afternoon, and that is going to promote some warmer temperatures,” McCann said.
Sunshine is forecast for the rest of the week, with chances of showers re-emerging into skies by Friday with a 30% chance of rain.