The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has lifted the Fifth Circuit’s stay of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) on COVID-19 vaccination and testing for employers with at least 100 employees. Multiple parties, including 27 states, have filed emergency motions with the U.S. Supreme Court to block the ETS.
In an opinion authored by Judge Jane B. Stanch, a three-judge panel determined in a 2-1 vote that, in light of the continued spread of COVID-19 variants, OSHA “must be able to respond to dangers as they evolve.” Judge Stanch was appointed to the bench by President Barack Obama. She was joined by Judge Julia Smith Gibbons, an appointee of President George W. Bush. Judge Joan Larsen, an appointee of President Donald Trump, dissented, noting that employees are exposed to COVID-19 even while not working and OSHA had not established that there was “grave danger” in the workplace or that the ETS requirements would correct that.
OSHA quickly announced that it will not issue citations for noncompliance before January 10, 2022. The agency also stated it will exercise its discretion and not issue citations for noncompliance with testing requirements under the ETS before February 9, 2022, if an employer is exercising reasonable, good faith efforts to come into compliance with the standard.
The ETS includes face covering requirements, a written policy, collection of proof of vaccination, creation of a vaccination status roster, removal of COVID-19 positive or untested employees from the workplace, maintenance of employee medical records and certain employee communications about the employer’s policies and vaccine information from the CDC. Covered employers will need to decide whether to adopt a mandatory vaccination policy, subject to reasonable accommodations and required exemptions, or a vaccination or weekly test policy. Covered employers implementing a mandatory vaccination plan still must comply with all other requirements, such as weekly testing for employees who are excused from the mandate as a reasonable accommodation.
None of the 22 approved State Plans, including Puerto Rico, covering private employers have taken steps to enact an ETS, but they are required to notify OSHA of their intentions to do so within 15 days of promulgation of the standard, and to act within 30 days. (Uniquely, although Puerto Rico has an OSHA State plan, the governor has already mandated employers with 50 or more employees implement a mandatory vaccination policy, a measure arguably equally or more effective than the ETS. Thus, Puerto Rico’s State Plan OSHA may not need to implement the OSHA ETS). In addition, California’s Cal/OSHA has approved revisions to the state’s existing COVID-19 emergency temporary standard. It is unclear whether it will take further action now with respect to the OSHA ETS. It is also unclear whether the Fifth Circuit stay that was in effect until December 17 tolls the deadlines for OSHA State plan adoption deadlines. The ETS has immediate effect in the other 29 states and territories, albeit with the new enforcement delays.
Employers in states and localities that prohibit or restrict vaccination or face covering requirements must be mindful of state and local laws, ordinances, and executive orders that might limit the employer’s ability to require vaccination or otherwise conflict with ETS requirements, particularly if an employer opts for the ETS’s mandatory vaccination policy. While the Sixth Circuit lifted the stay, it has yet to decide the case on the merits, including arguments over whether the ETS overrides state or local laws due to federal preemption. Significantly, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia have enacted measures that would restrict or impact vaccination requirements. Some of these states are OSHA State Plans and some are actually federal OSHA jurisdictions, creating additional compliance confusion.
Several petitioners have already appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to stay enforcement of the ETS, emphasizing the irreparable harm they will suffer in having to implement the ETS and providing supporting witness declarations. They continue to argue irreparable harm based on labor shortages, the unavailability of tests and unintended — and ironically — consequences of laying off vaccinated workers to financially support compliance. In addition to the challengers’ concerns about the economic viability of their businesses, they argue their likelihood of success in enjoining the standard on the merits and balance of equities weighing in favor of a stay.
Emergency appeals, such as the request for a stay of a ruling by a Circuit Court, go directly to a justice assigned to that Circuit — in this case, to Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who is assigned to the Sixth Circuit. The assigned justice may distribute the application to the full court to consider or decide the request on their own. Just a few months ago, Justice Amy Coney Barrett rejected an emergency request made by a group of Indiana University students who sought to block enforcement of the school’s vaccine mandate after the Seventh Circuit refused to enjoin the mandate. Justice Barrett did not refer the emergency application to the full Supreme Court and did not provide an explanation in the denial of the petitioners’ request.