Judge Blocks COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate for Federal Employees

Author: Emily Scace, XpertHR Legal Editor

January 24, 2022

Citing limits on presidential authority, a federal district court judge in Texas has issued a nationwide injunction blocking the Biden administration's COVID-19 vaccine mandate for federal employees.

Executive Order 14043, issued in September 2021, required all federal executive branch employees to receive a COVID-19 vaccination by November 22, 2021, except in circumstances in which an accommodation was legally required. Unlike the Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) targeting businesses with 100 or more employees, which was recently stayed by the Supreme Court, the federal employee mandate did not offer periodic testing as an alternative to vaccination or exempt fully remote workers from the requirement.

The opinion blocking the federal employee mandate emphasized that the decision was not driven by an anti-vaccination stance; rather, the question was "whether the President can, with the stroke of a pen and without the input of Congress, require millions of federal employees to undergo a medical procedure as a condition of their employment." Calling the mandate "a bridge too far," Judge Jeffrey Vincent Brown rejected the government's argument that receiving a COVID-19 vaccination could be considered workplace conduct within the President's authority to regulate.

Like the recent Supreme Court ruling blocking OSHA's ETS, the opinion stressed the irreversible nature of a COVID-19 vaccination, finding that forcing employees to choose between vaccination and employment would constitute an "irreparable injury." Reasoning that "less restrictive measures than the mandate, such as masking, social distancing, or part- or full-time remote work," could adequately advance the government's interest in protecting the public from COVID-19, the court also cited the need to balance the harm of allowing federal employees to remain unvaccinated against "the harm sure to come by terminating unvaccinated workers who provide vital services to the nation."

Prior to the latest ruling, the White House had characterized the mandate as a success.  A December 2021 press release announced that 92.5% of federal employees had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

The Biden administration has appealed the ruling.