Federal vaccine mandate has strong legal footing

President Joe Biden’s coronavirus vaccine mandate for workplaces with more than 100 people on the payroll is rooted in existing law governing worker protections, said a trio of public health law experts.

As long as the mandate allows exemptions for religious, medical or disability reasons, then it is expected to survive legal challenges, the experts from three Catholic law schools told Catholic News Service.

“He’s absolutely within his powers,” Lawrence O. Gostin, professor of global health law at Georgetown University Law Center, said. “He’s used very limited but clear powers in all the things he’s trying to do (to control spread of the coronavirus).”

Elizabeth Pendo, professor of law at the St. Louis University School of Law, said the federal government “has authority to create rules to keep workers safe.”

“The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is tasked with keeping workers safe. That’s where the authority comes from,” Pendo explained.

OSHA was established to carry out the requirements of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. The law protects employees from known workplace hazards such toxic chemicals and frayed wiring. The rule would last six months and then would have to be replaced by a permanent directive.

Biden announced the vaccine mandate Sept. 9. It included an alternative to vaccination: weekly coronavirus testing. It would affect 80 million workers nationwide.

The Biden plan extends beyond businesses. It calls for all employees at health care facilities that accept Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements to become vaccinated. It also pertains to all federal workers, Head Start staffers, Department of Defense schools and Bureau of Indian Education-operated schools for Native Americans.

Mercy Sister Mary Haddad, president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, voiced support for Biden’s decision to require vaccinations for staff at Medicare- and Medicaid-certified health care facilities.

In a Sept. 9 statement following Biden’s announcement, Sister Haddad said many CHA members already require the vaccines, “recognizing they are necessary to protect patients, their staff and the entire community from the virus.”

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