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The Supreme Court delivered 2 decisions on vaccine rules for U.S. workers


Ten million health care workers across the U.S. legally have to abide by the Biden administration's vaccine mandate. The Supreme Court upheld that rule yesterday. At the same time, the court blocked the vaccine-or-test rule that had been set for 84 million workers at companies. NPR's Andrea Hsu is here with details. Andrea, what did the court have to say?

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Well, on the vaccine-or-test rule, the vote was 6 to 3 to block it. The six conservative justices found that OSHA, the federal workplace safety agency, did not have the authority to issue something so sweeping. They sided with the challengers, who had argued that COVID is not a danger specific to the workplace; it's all over society. And the court said OSHA can regulate occupational hazards but not public health more broadly without clear authorization from Congress. Now, the three liberal justices said the court's decision hinders the federal government's ability to deal with the very serious threat that the virus still poses to workers.

MARTIN: So how are companies themselves reacting to this?

HSU: Well, the National Federation of Independent Business called the decision welcome relief for companies who are still trying to dig out from under the pandemic. And I think there's some relief even among companies that didn't object to this rule. I was at MOM's Organic Market earlier this week. It's a small grocery chain headquartered in Maryland. And their chief culture officer, Jon Croft, knew a ruling was coming, but he wasn't focused on it because they've got so many other pressing issues right now with the supply chain, with workers sick with omicron.

JON CROFT: There's so much going on, and there's so many other things to do. We just don't have the bandwidth to be going down rabbit holes that we might not even have to go down.

HSU: Like figuring out how to get unvaccinated workers tested every week, and now he doesn't need to.

MARTIN: OK, so that's the case the Biden administration lost. Let's talk about the one that the administration succeeded in - the vaccine mandate for health care workers. Why was this one different?

HSU: Well, in that case, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kavanaugh, two conservatives, sided with the three liberals. They found that the government can impose conditions on health care employers who get funding through Medicare and Medicaid, and most of them do. And they pointed out that vaccine requirements are actually pretty common in health care for things such as measles and hepatitis B.

MARTIN: So the challengers to this rule had argued that health care workers might quit over the vaccine mandate, and that could lead to, obviously, a staffing crisis. Is that likely to happen?

HSU: Well, not necessarily. First of all, health care workers do have some time before they have to be fully vaccinated. And in hospitals that already had their own mandates, most people have gotten the shots. Last night, I did check in with Ted LeNeave. He's the CEO of Accura Health Care, which runs nursing homes in the Midwest. He had been really worried about a mass exodus, but over the last few months, the vaccination rate among his employees has gone up from 60% to now just above 70%. And he thinks it's - will go up further now that the court has ruled. And yesterday he sent a blast to all his employees.

TED LENEAVE: Don't panic. Don't leave. You know, if you're not vaccinated, we will have conversations with you about the vaccine, the need for the vaccine, why it's important, why it is safe.

HSU: And he told them they will also discuss options for applying for religious or medical exemptions. Now, LeNeave did say that unvaccinated workers do have to be tested multiple times a week and wear N95 masks on the job.

MARTIN: OK. NPR's labor correspondent Andrea Hsu. Andrea, thanks. We appreciate it.

HSU: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, and a founding host of NPR's award-winning morning news podcast Up First. Martin's interviews take listeners behind the headlines to understand the people at the center of those stories.
Andrea Hsu
Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.