On Thursday afternoon, the Supreme Court ruled against COVID-19 mandates in a 6-3 vote, with all three Trump-appointed judges—who landed their roles thanks to a filibuster carve-out—voting that OSHA doesn’t have the authority to regulate vaccinations by companies. Except for doctors and hospitals. Because judges don’t have to go into the office, but they do have to go to the doctor.
The ruling is based around some blandly twisted reasoning, but it’s down on Page 6 of the decision that the worst aspect of this ruling is revealed. And it’s a doozy.
“The Solicitor General does not dispute that OSHA is limited to regulating ‘work-related dangers.’ She instead argues that the risk of contracting COVID–19 qualifies as such a danger. We cannot agree. Although COVID–19 is a risk that occurs in many workplaces, it is not an occupational hazard in most. COVID–19 can and does spread at home, in schools, during sporting events, and everywhere else that people gather.”
In this ruling, the Supreme Court is explicitly saying that COVID-19 isn’t an “occupational hazard” because it can also occur outside the workplace. Which provides every employer, every conservative organization, and every Republican attorney general the perfect opening to destroy safety regulations across the board.
COVID-19 obviously is a danger that affects people “at home, in schools, during sporting events, and everywhere else that people gather.” But that doesn’t mean that it’s not also a workplace hazard. Someone might take the greatest possible caution in their daily life, but if their workplace forces them to be in a position where they have to spend an extended period of time in the company of a large number of people—whether that’s as a waitress in a restaurant or a steward on a plane—the threat posed by their workplace environment can overwhelm all the precautions they’ve taken at home.
The test the Supreme Court appears to be setting up with this ruling is that, in order to be regulated under the authority of OSHA, a hazard must be a threat that takes place in the workplace, but also one unique to the work environment. For example, workplaces might still be required to regulate the operation of heavy equipment, but passenger trucks … hey, people have them at home, at sporting events, etc.
Lifting of heavy objects? That’s certainly something that people do away from the workplace. So is the use of power tools. Exposure to loud noises is something that happens in everyday life.
To underscore that this farcically awful construction was not accidental takes no more than dropping down to the next sentences.
“That kind of universal risk is no different from the day-to-day dangers that all face from crime, air pollution, or any number of communicable diseases. Permitting OSHA to regulate the hazards of daily life—simply because most Americans have jobs and face those same risks while on the clock—would significantly expand OSHA’s regulatory authority without clear congressional authorization.”
What the ruling is spelling out here is an explicit gutting of OSHA’s authority to regulate safety in the work environment. It’s a ruling that will be will become a touchstone for anyone seeking to bypass safety requirements big and small. It’s a get-out-of-jail-free card for placing workers at risk, one that essentially eliminates authority to oversee worker health and safety.
Republicans went fishing for a ruling against President Biden’s vaccine mandate that they could bring home, mount over the fireplace, and brag about next November. What they landed was a whale that will provide endless gifts to their corporate supporters—and endless misery for the average worker.