Gov. Tate Reeves, who leads one of the least vaccinated states, celebrated the decision to suspend a federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has suspended the enactment of President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate for companies that employ more than 100 workers as lawsuits filed by 26 states, including Mississippi, are considered in the federal judiciary.

Gov. Tate Reeves, who leads the pandemic response for one of the least vaccinated states in America, celebrated on social media the decision of the OSHA earlier this week to suspend the enactment of the mandate, which was not slated to go into effect until early January.

“Another victory for freedom and individual liberty! Another victory for Mississippians! And another loss for Biden and federal overreach. OSHA suspends enforcement of vaccine mandate,” Reeves said on social media.

In September, Biden announced plans to impose coronavirus vaccine mandates on employees of companies and other entities with federal contracts and on companies that employ more than 100 workers. The mandate was immediately met with criticism by Republican politicians, including by Reeves, state House Speaker Philip Gunn, and Mississippi U.S. Sens. Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith.

Besides OSHA suspending the enactment of the mandate, the Biden administration also has provided more leeway on the portion of his mandate that requires companies with federal contracts to ensure their employees are vaccinated. Under the latest guidelines, the federal contractors are afforded significant discretion in enforcing the mandate and the mandate has been pushed back from December to Jan. 18.

Employees of federal contractors can ask for an accommodation to not be vaccinated based on religious and health reasons. And the company is responsible for deciding whether to grant the accommodation. Even if the accommodation is not granted, the company should not immediately terminate the employment of the worker, though the unvaccinated worker is required to wear a mask and practice social distancing and can be barred from federal property.

According to Roll Call, a company should counsel and consider other disciplinary action for unvaccinated employees before considering termination.

The mandate on large companies gave them the option of requiring regular coronavirus testing for those who refused vaccinations.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Mississippi in its jurisdiction, was the first court to halt the vaccine mandate for companies employing more than 100.

But the 5th Circuit no longer has jurisdiction on the issue. As spelled out in federal law, the multiple lawsuits challenging the mandate were combined, and through a random drawing the Ohio-based 6th Circuit was chosen as the jurisdiction to handle the cases.

Many national pundits have predicted the issue ultimately will be settled by the U.S. Supreme Court. But an article in the National Review surmised that the Biden administration never believed the mandate would hold up in court, but imposed it believing it would help increase the nation’s overall vaccination rate even if it eventually was struck down.

Numerous courts have upheld vaccine mandates on the state and local levels. What is at issue in the lawsuits against Biden is whether his Department of Labor can use federal law to impose the mandate. Federal law gives the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration the authority to issue rules and regulations to ensure workplace safety. The question for the courts is whether the vaccine mandate is a proper use of that OSHA authority.

For much of the pandemic, Reeves imposed mask mandates and other mandates for large swarths of the state. But this past summer as the COVID-19 delta variant surged and overwhelmed hospitals, the Republican governor refused to impose any mandates even as Mississippi became the state with the highest fatality rate per capita from the coronavirus. Mississippi also is one of the nation’s least vaccinated states.

READ MORE: Reeves downplays Mississippi’s highest-in-nation COVID death rate

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.