The Ministry of Labor promises to protect workers from Covid after the Supreme Court blocked the business vaccine mandate

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U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh talks about unions during an event in the East Room of the White House on September 8, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Brendan Smialowski AFP | Getty Images

The Ministry of Labor has promised to use its power to protect workers from Covid after the Supreme Court blocked the Biden administration vaccine and testing rules for private companies.

In a statement after the High Court ruling, Labor Minister Marty Walsh said the Safety and Labor Administration was assessing its chances of enforcing safety standards against Covid in the workplace.

“Whatever the end result of these proceedings, OSHA will do everything in its power to make companies accountable for protecting workers,” Walsh said Thursday.

OSHA still has a general mandate that requires employers to maintain a safe job, and can penalize companies for failing to do so. The agency has investigated thousands of Covid complaints since the start of the pandemic with millions of dollars in proposed fines.

In a 6-3 ruling, the Conservative majority described the federal mandate as a “dumb tool” that “does not differentiate according to industry or the risk of Covid-19 exposure.”

However, the High Court said OSHA has the power to regulate certain jobs where workers face a major threat from Covid.

“Where a virus poses a particular threat due to the specific nature of the employee’s work or workplace, targeted regulations are clearly permissible,” the court wrote in an unsigned opinion.

The court said it “has no doubt” that OSHA can implement security measures to protect workers from Covid in particularly cramped or crowded environments.

In other words, OSHA could adapt a new regulation aimed at high-risk industries, such as meat packaging, with security measures that do not include the controversial vaccine rule, says Jordan Barab, OSHA’s deputy assistant secretary during the Obama administration.

“There are a number of criteria that OSHA could use to base itself on a higher risk that is likely to pass the Supreme Court’s judgment,” Barab told CNBC on Friday.

Workers’ unions are already working in this direction. The AFL-CIO, the largest union in the U.S., has called on the White House to issue a new workplace safety standard that will require improved ventilation, physical distancing, camouflage and paid leave for all workers.

“While we are disappointed with the decision, most courts have clearly acknowledged OSHA’s mandate to protect workers facing an increased risk of Covid-19 infection in the workplace,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said in a statement. “OSHA’s responsibility to ensure safe working conditions remains firmly established.”

The United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union, which represents 1.3 million people, primarily in meat packaging and food processing, wants the White House and businesses to provide free personal protective equipment in addition to the measures required by the AFL-CIO.

The International Service Workers Union, which represents 2 million workers, is urging Congress and states to get involved and implement security measures where the White House has failed, including universal vaccination and wider access to testing.

“In light of the senseless abandonment of millions of essential workers by the Supreme Court, Congress and states must urgently take action and demand that employers protect all workers,” SEIU President Mary Kay Henry said in a statement.

More than 20 countries are implementing their own workplace safety plans, and some have implemented Covid’s safety requirements. California, for example, requires this from all employees and customers wear masks indoors. Businesses must also iimplement plans to prevent Covid, investigate outbreaks and inform employees in one day, and offer free testing of fully vaccinated employees, among other measures.

New York City has introduced a vaccine mandate for all private companies. Mayor Eric Adams made it clear on Friday that city rules still apply.

Chicago requires anyone over the age of 5 to show proof of vaccination, eating indoors at restaurants, going to the gym, or entering indoor entertainment venues where they serve food. Los Angeles has similar rules.

President Joe Biden, for his part, called on companies to volunteer to implement the vaccine and test rules. Many large companies – including Citigroup, Nike and Columbia Sportswear – have announced they will start laying off unvaccinated workers.

“The court has ruled that my administration cannot use the powers given to it by Congress to demand this measure,” Biden said. “But that doesn’t stop me from using my voice as president to advocate for employers to do the right thing to protect the health and economy of Americans.”

However, other companies are already abandoning the rules. General Electric, which has 174,000 employees, said Friday abandoned the vaccine and testing rules.

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