Labour advocates were dismayed by the ruling.
“This decision will have no impact on most professional and white collar workers, but it will endanger millions of frontline workers who risk their lives daily and who are least able to protect themselves,” said David Michaels, who led OSHA during the Obama administration and now teaches at the George Washington University’s School of Public Health.
For their part, labor unions had been divided all along about Biden’s attempt to create a vaccine mandate, with many nurses and teachers groups in favour, but many police and fire unions opposed. Some unions wanted the right to bargain over the issue with companies.
The United Auto Workers, which encourages workers to get vaccinated, said the decision will not change safety protocols such as face masks, temperature checks and distancing when possible for more than 150,000 union members at General Motors, Ford and Stellantis factories.
The Service Employees International Union, which represents more than 2 million service industry workers, said the Supreme Court’s decision is a relief for health care workers but leaves others without critical protections.
“In blocking the vaccine-or-test rule for large employers, the court has placed millions of other essential workers further at risk, caving to corporations that are trying to rig the rules against workers permanently,” the union said.
The union called on Congress and states to pass laws requiring vaccinations, masks and paid sick leave. Workers also need better access to testing and protective equipment, the union said.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, the largest union for grocery workers and meatpacking plants, said that the Supreme Court decision fails to recognized the “extreme health risks” America’s front-line food and retail workers face on the job.
“Frontline workers need to be protected and this decision needlessly ignores that there was a better way to address this issue without negating this mandate,” said Marc Perrone, CEO of the UFCW International in a statement.
Meanwhile, employers have been split on what to do with their unvaccinated workers.
Among 543 US companies surveyed in November by insurance broker and consulting firm Willis Towers Watson, fewer than one in five required vaccination. Two-thirds had no plans to require the shots unless the courts upheld the OSHA requirement.
Jeff Levin-Scherz, an executive in the firm’s health practice, said most companies with mandates will keep them because they are working. He said nothing short of a mandate can get vaccination rates to 90 per cent, and “you really need a very high level of vaccination to prevent community outbreaks”.
United Airlines was one of the first major employers to announce a mandate, back in August. CEO Scott Kirby has said that 99 per cent of United employees either got vaccinated or submitted a request for exemption on medical or religious grounds.
United declined to comment Thursday, but in earlier comments Kirby has sounded committed to the mandate for his employees because “it was the right thing to do for safety”.
Airlines fall under a separate Biden order that required federal contractors to get their workers vaccinated. That requirement was not part of Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling, but it has been tied up separately since early December, when a federal district judge in Georgia issued a preliminary injunction barring enforcement of the mandate.