Kristin Thompson, MJLST Staffer
Rewind to the beginning of September. President Biden had just announced a generalized plan for addressing the alarmingly slow rise in vaccination rates in the United States. His disposition was serious as he pleaded with the American public to go out and get vaccinated. During this address he laid out several different measures that, conceivably, would lead to a higher national vaccination rate. Included in this plan was a vaccine requirement for all federal employees and government contractors. This sanction did not come as much of a surprise, as federal employees had previously been asked to provide proof of vaccination to avoid stringent safety protocols in the workplace. What was surprising, however, was President Biden’s plea to the Department of Labor to develop a federal vaccine mandate or required weekly COVID testing for private companies employing more than one hundred employees.
In the wake of this announcement came many different responses. On the one hand there were some private U.S. companies already enforcing vaccine policies who seemed unrattled by a potential new federal mandate, and there were some companies who viewed it as a welcome opportunity to implement a vaccine policy by means of a third-party enforcer. On the other hand there were companies who loathe any type of government interference in their business activity and policy implementation, and those who have been specifically opposed to a vaccine requirement and may have even made promises to their employees saying as much. Those companies who opposed a vaccine mandate, in light of this plea from President Biden, had to start making strategic decisions on how they would move forward if the Department of Labor heeded the president’s request.
The questions that came following President Biden’s address were the same regardless of the company’s personal view. Would a federal mandate be legal, would it be constitutional, and would it ever come? This uncertainty hung in the air while private companies, those with 101 employees and 5,000 employees alike, began to prepare. Draft mandatory vaccine policies were made, legal counsel was requested, and employees were advised. Now all that was left to do was wait for the Department of Labor’s cue.
Fast-forward to November. The Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released an emergency temporary standard (ETS) in line with President Biden’s plan. The goal of this standard being “to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission in the workplace,” and to “protect unvaccinated employees of large workplaces.” This standard mandates that all employers with more than 100 employees, including private companies, must require their employees get vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID tests and wear face masks while at work. The standard does not apply to remote workers, workers who predominantly work outside, or employees who work without other co-workers present.
The questions that arose after the ETS was announced were similar to those asked by companies directly after President Biden’s address. Is this ETS legal, is it constitutional, and when will we have to be in compliance? The last question seems to be easily answered; all requirements except weekly testing for unvaccinated employees must be met by December 6th, 2021. The weekly testing policy for unvaccinated employees must begin by January 6th, 2022. However, the immediate onslaught of lawsuits attempting to prevent the ETS have made these straightforward dates seem somewhat arbitrary. Companies now face a unique set of issues prompting even more, new, questions. Do we actually have to be in compliance by December 5th? What effect will these lawsuits have on the ETS? Are we just supposed to wait and see?
Legally, the situation private companies face is complex. As of November 12th, the Fifth Circuit had issued and subsequently reaffirmed a stay on the standard, meaning companies did not have to comply with the mandate. At that time, the Fifth Circuit was the only court that had issued a stay, although there were lawsuits pending in eleven of the twelve circuit courts. What complicated this Fifth Circuit determination was the question of whether or not it covered all U.S. companies; if your company is based in another Circuits’ jurisdiction was this Fifth Circuit stay relevant? The current ruling enjoins OSHA from enforcing the ETS, so while the Fifth Circuit did not write on whether their holding extended outside of their jurisdiction, its practical effect was, and is, felt everywhere. So then, what comes next? How long will this stay last, and who should private companies be looking to in planning their next move?
The Fifth Circuits’ stay will last until one of two things occur. The first is multidistrict litigation, where all outstanding lawsuits brought against the ETS will be combined, and one decision will be rendered by the Circuit Court on whether or not the stay shall be enforced. The first step of this process has already begun; on Tuesday November 16th the Sixth Circuit Court was chosen via a lottery process to preside over the multidistrict litigation. The Sixth Court is based in Cincinnati, Ohio and typically leans conservative. While this proclivity does not necessarily mean that the ETS is doomed, it does suggest that President Biden may ask the Supreme Court to take over the case, preferring the Supreme Court Justices over the Sixth Circuit’s judges. This introduces the second way the stay may be addressed, by a Supreme Court ruling. This alternative can be triggered by either a plea from the federal government directly asking the Court to end the Fifth Circuits’ stay, or via an independent decision by the Supreme Court to pluck this consolidated lawsuit out the Sixth Circuits’ hands.
However, if the Supreme Court is not called upon and chooses not to pull the case up on their own, the Sixth Circuit will have the authority to either end, modify, or extend the Fifth Circuits’ current stay on the ETS. This leaves companies with a choice; will they wait and see how the Sixth Circuit, or maybe even the Supreme Court, rules on the stay? Will they wait to see if the stay is extended and the deadline for compliance is pushed back, or will they start implanting the mandate now in the event that the stay is extinguished and December 5th compliance is reinstated?
There is a chance that an extended stay will allow these companies to push off vaccine mandates. There is also a chance that the stay will be terminated before December 5th and all original compliance deadlines will be the same. Both of these alternatives are further complicated when paired with the uncertainty surrounding timing. If a company decides to run the risk and hope for an extended stay, and the Sixth Circuit court issues a retraction of the stay on December 3rd, companies may still be forced to observe the December 5th compliance date. However, if they decide to comply right now and the stay is extended, they may regret acting so quickly. In the end the mass amount of uncertainty surrounding the ETS and resulting litigation is creating many tough decisions for private employers. While the choice to comply with OSHA’s currently suspended ETS may not be mandatory right now, it’s obvious that a failure to act may put them far behind schedule for creating and implanting an effective vaccine mandate policy. That failure to act has the potential to end in high OSHA fines as well as general pushback from the public. In the end the decision on how to treat this paused ETS is up to each individual company, as will be any consequences stemming from that choice.