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Volume XII, Number 334

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Sixth Circuit Gives Employers Lump of Coal for Christmas, Dissolves Stay of OSHA Vaccine ETS

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has lifted the Fifth Circuit’s stay of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) on COVID-19 vaccination and testing for employers with at least 100 employees. In re: MCP No. 165, Occupational Safety & Health Admin. Rule on COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing, 86 Fed. Reg. 61402, Nos. 21-7000, et al. (6th Cir. Dec. 17, 2021).

Multiple parties, including 27 states, have filed emergency motions with the U.S. Supreme Court to block the ETS.

In an opinion authored by Judge Jane B. Stanch, a three-judge panel determined in a 2-1 vote that, in light of the continued spread of COVID-19 variants, OSHA “must be able to respond to dangers as they evolve.” Judge Stanch was appointed to the bench by President Barack Obama. She was joined by Judge Julia Smith Gibbons, an appointee of President George W. Bush. Judge Joan Larsen, an appointee of President Donald Trump, dissented, noting employees are exposed to COVID-19 even while not working and OSHA had not established there was “grave danger” in the workplace or the ETS requirements would correct that.

OSHA quickly announced that it will not issue citations for noncompliance before January 10, 2022. The agency also stated it will exercise its discretion and not issue citations for noncompliance with testing requirements under the ETS before February 9, 2022, if an employer is exercising reasonable, good faith efforts to come into compliance with the standard.

The ETS includes face covering requirements, a written policy, collection of proof of vaccination, creation of a vaccination status roster, removal of COVID-19 positive or untested employees from the workplace, maintenance of employee medical records, and certain employee communications about the employer’s policies and vaccine information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Covered employers will need to decide whether to adopt a mandatory vaccination policy, subject to reasonable accommodations and required exemptions, or a vaccination or weekly test policy. Covered employers implementing a mandatory vaccination plan still must comply with all other requirements, such as weekly testing for employees who are excused from the mandate as a reasonable accommodation.

None of the 22 approved State Plans, including Puerto Rico, covering private employers have taken steps to enact an ETS, but they are required to notify OSHA of their intentions to do so within 15 days of promulgation of the standard, and to act within 30 days. (Uniquely, although Puerto Rico has an OSHA State plan, the governor has already mandated employers with at least 50 employees implement a mandatory vaccination policy, a measure arguably equally or more effective than the ETS. Thus, Puerto Rico’s State Plan OSHA may not need to implement the OSHA ETS). In addition, California’s Cal/OSHA has approved revisions to the state’s existing COVID-19 emergency temporary standard. It is unclear whether it will take further action now with respect to the OSHA ETS. It is also unclear whether the Fifth Circuit stay that was in effect until December 17 tolls the deadlines for OSHA State plan adoption deadlines. The ETS has immediate effect in the other 29 states and territories, albeit with the new enforcement delays.

Employers in states and localities that prohibit or restrict vaccination or face covering requirements must be mindful of state and local laws, ordinances, and executive orders that might limit the employer’s ability to require vaccination or otherwise conflict with ETS requirements, particularly if an employer opts for the ETS’s mandatory vaccination policy. While the Sixth Circuit lifted the stay, it has yet to decide the case on the merits, including arguments over whether the ETS overrides state or local laws due to federal preemption. Significantly, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia have enacted measures that would restrict or impact vaccination requirements. Some of these states are OSHA State Plans and some are actually federal OSHA jurisdictions, creating additional compliance confusion.

Several petitioners have already appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to stay enforcement of the ETS, emphasizing the irreparable harm they will suffer in having to implement the ETS and providing supporting witness declarations. They continue to argue irreparable harm based on labor shortages, the unavailability of tests and unintended (and ironic) consequences of laying off vaccinated workers to financially support compliance. In addition to the challengers’ concerns about the economic viability of their businesses, they argue their likelihood of success in enjoining the standard on the merits and balance of equities weigh in favor of a stay.

Emergency appeals, such as the request for a stay of a ruling by a Circuit Court, go directly to a justice assigned to that Circuit — in this case, to Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who is assigned to the Sixth Circuit. The assigned justice may distribute the application to the full court to consider or decide the request on their own. Just a few months ago, Justice Amy Coney Barrett rejected an emergency request made by a group of Indiana University students seeking to block enforcement of the school’s vaccine mandate after the Seventh Circuit refused to enjoin the mandate. Justice Barrett did not refer the emergency application to the full Supreme Court and did not provide an explanation in the denial of the petitioners’ request.

Jackson Lewis P.C. © 2022National Law Review, Volume XI, Number 353
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About this Author

Courtney Malveaux, OSHA Lawyer, Employment, Richmond, Virginia, Jackson Lewis Law Firm
Principal

Courtney Malveaux is a Principal in the Richmond, Virginia, office of Jackson Lewis P.C.

Mr. Malveaux represents employers cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other regulatory agencies. He also advises and represents employers in employment law matters, including retaliation claims, employment discrimination, unemployment benefits and wage claims. Mr. Malveaux also represents business associations in state and federal legislative and regulatory matters.

Mr. Malveaux represents industry on the Virginia Safety and...

804-212-2862
Melanie L. Paul Trial Attorney Jackson Lewis Atlanta, GA
Of Counsel

Melanie L. Paul is Of Counsel in the Atlanta, Georgia office of Jackson Lewis P.C.  Her practice focuses on occupational safety and health and wage and hour issues.  Ms. Paul’s clients benefit from her unique inside experience as a trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) for more than a decade. 

During Ms. Paul’s time with the DOL, she regularly appeared at hearings and trials before federal administrative tribunals and federal district courts throughout the southeastern United States in matters of Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) law, Mine...

404-586-1869
Patricia Anderson Pryor, Class Action, Litigator
Principal and Office Litigation Manager

Patricia Anderson Pryor is a Shareholder in the Cincinnati, Ohio office of Jackson Lewis P.C. Ms. Pryor is an experienced litigator in both state and federal courts, representing and defending employers in nearly every form of employment litigation, including class actions.

She represents and advises employers in federal and state administrative proceedings, in all forms of dispute resolution, including mediation and arbitration, and in managing all aspects of the employment relationship. She has represented...

513-322-5035
Catherine A. Cano, Jackson Lewis, Federal Disability Lawyer, Retaliation Matters Attorney
Associate

Catherine A. Cano is an Associate in the Omaha, Nebraska, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. She represents management in all areas of labor and employment law. 

Ms. Cano helps clients navigate state, federal, and local leave and disability laws. Ms. Cano has experience in litigation and arbitration in several areas, including employment discrimination, retaliation and whistleblower claims, and non-competes and unfair competition. Ms. Cano’s practice also includes assisting clients involved in union organization campaigns, collective bargaining,...

402-391-1991
Katharine Weber, JacksonLewis Law Firm, Labor and Employment Attorney
Principal

Ms. Weber has experience litigating wrongful discharge cases; managing discrimination cases; negotiating collective bargaining agreements; representing employers before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and other federal, Ohio and Kentucky agencies; advising management on employment relations; drafting employee handbooks; and negotiating severance agreements.

Ms. Weber regularly advises clients on wage and hour issues. Over the past five years she has served as lead counsel on various wage and hour class and...

513-898-0050
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