Virus Outbreak Vaccine Mandates

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry talks to reporters outside the Supreme Court after arguments about whether to allow the administration to enforce a vaccine-or-testing requirement that applies to large employers and a separate vaccine mandate for most health care workers, Friday, Jan. 7, 2022, in Washington. At left is deputy Louisiana Attorney General Bill Stiles.

Louisiana businesspeople and politicos weighed in on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions about the Biden administration’s requirement that employers vaccinate nearly 100 million workers and require regular COVID-19 tests to those who refuse.

The high court decided four cases on two issues: Recently enacted rules by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, called OSHA, which applied to roughly 84 million workers, covering virtually all employers with at least 100 employees; and regulations by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, called CMS and part of the U.S. Health and Human Services department, that Medicare and Medicaid facilities vaccinate about 10 million staffers in order to receive their federal funding.

Majorities on the high court voted that the wording in the law that gives OSHA the ability to regulate employers doesn’t provide a clear authority to require vaccinations as workplace safety measures. A 6-3 majority suspended the Biden vaccination mandate for employers across the nation.

Justice Brent Kavanaugh and Chief Justice John Roberts then switched sides and backed an opinion that Health and Human Services does have the authority to make vaccination demands on health care workers. The 5-4 majority in these cases allowed the CMS-ordered vaccinations to continue for healthcare employees.

Though a split decision, the Supreme Court rulings are largely seen as a setback for President Joe Biden and his efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 after nearly two years of pandemic.

But Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, who filed lawsuits challenging both issues, was delighted about the outcome of the workplace lawsuits, not so much for the health care decision.

“As I am hopeful the OSHA decision brings relief to the millions of Americans whose lives were going to be impacted by Biden’s overreach, I am devastated for our healthcare heroes whom the government is now forcing to violate their consciences in order to keep their jobs,” Landry said in a statement. “I remain steadfast in my belief that healthcare decisions should be made by individuals, not dictated by bureaucrats’ intent on forcing medical procedures on people who do not want or need them.”

The OSHA rule, issued in November, was to take effect Monday, though federal enforcement had been delayed until February. Several major companies agreed with the vaccination mandate. Others voiced support but never issued vaccination policies to their employees.

The National Federation of Independent Business, which represents smaller companies, was one of several groups and businesses to challenge the mandate on the grounds that OSHA didn’t have the legal authority to require employers to enforce vaccinations.

Brandon Trosclair, an Ascension Parish grocer who filed a lawsuit in federal court against OSHA challenging the vaccine mandate, said Thursday he was “super relieved” by the court ruling.

Trosclair owns 15 Ralph's Market, Butcher Boy and Save A Lot stores in south Louisiana and Mississippi and has nearly 500 employees. He said the vaccine mandate would cost him 25% to 30% of his existing employees.

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“We’re already short-handed and understaffed,” he said. “It would have been that much more of a burden on us as a business. We also would have faced very, very heavy fines and we didn’t want to be in a position to lay off any people.”

Stephen Waguespack, president and chief executive officer of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the state’s largest and most influential business lobbyist, said mandating employees get vaccinated or requiring regular testing of unvaccinated employees would have been a “massive burden” on companies still recovering from the pandemic-induced business downturns and struggling to find workers.

“While we encourage everyone to consult with their doctor about getting vaccinated, there’s no doubt that a one-size fits-all approach is the wrong one,” Waguespack said. “Employers across the country can rest easier tonight thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision.”

“Today’s ruling rejects federal government overreach. It is a win for personal liberties and the 80 million Americans affected by this decision,” said U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge. “People should get vaccinated, but President Biden should not be able to force [private businesses] to do it. The Supreme Court agrees.”

Some local and state laws still require employers to mandate vaccines or weekly testing.

“The fight isn’t over,” U.S. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, said in a statement that couched the difference of opinion as a battle with an authoritarian government. “Republicans will continue to speak up for the many health care workers who have been wrongly fired due to a similar mandate. They were on the front lines during the worst times of this pandemic, and many have natural immunity from prior infections," he said.

A 5-4 majority found that healthcare workers are in a different category than the rest of the workforce largely because medical institutions often require vaccinations to protect the workers as well as the patients. Though some providers raised issues about the mandates, no health care provider joined the opponents of required vaccinations.

Meanwhile, Baton Rouge area hospitals said they were plotting next steps following the ruling.

Katie Johnston, a spokesperson for Baton Rouge General, said 99% of the hospital’s staffers have either been vaccinated or approved for an exemption. The hospital had not previously issued a mandate for its employees.

“We’re currently reaching out to the remaining group (of unvaccinated employees) to determine their next steps,” Johnston said in an email. “Staffing is an enormous challenge in healthcare right now, and we need our entire team working together to care for the patients who need us.”

Caroline Isemann, a spokesperson for Woman’s Hospital, said the facility’s priority was to remain in compliance with any CMS mandates. “We will be following closely and looking to CMS for further guidance on how to move forward,” she said in an email.

Mark Ballard of The Advocate | The Times-Picayune Capitol news bureau, Business Editor Timothy Boone, and staff writer Robert Stewart contributed to this report.

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.