Lawmakers in at least 23 states, often encouraged by vaccine skeptics, have proposed banning employers from requiring workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or other infectious diseases. Most bills are sponsored by Republicans, who say employees shouldn’t have to choose between getting a shot and staying employed, reports Stateline.
“I just kind of like the idea of personal freedom, and that’s one of my biggest things as a legislator,” said Republican state Sen. Dennis Kruse, who sponsored one such bill in Indiana.
Although vaccines protect individuals and communities from disease outbreaks, online disinformation has turbocharged some people’s concerns about vaccine safety and potential mandates in recent years. Some anti-vaccine activists have spread false information about the science and public policy surrounding immunizations.
Yet despite lobbying from anti-vaccine groups, often known as anti-vaxxers, the employer mandate bills are unlikely to pass, experts say. That’s because the proposals threaten employers’ legal obligation to maintain a safe workplace and could put the lives of workers, customers and patients at risk.
Federal guidance issued in December allows employers to require that their workers get COVID-19 vaccines, although they must accommodate employees' religious objections and also make sure vaccine requirements don't discriminate against employees with disabilities.
Accommodating a religious objection could involve changing an unvaccinated worker's job duties to maintain a safe workplace. For instance, employers could ask workers who refuse immunization to work remotely or wear protective gear.
Kruse’s bill would have applied to all vaccines, not just COVID-19, which particularly alarmed public health experts. “The main concern is that this applies to all vaccines in all contexts,” Patrick Glew, a program manager for the Indiana Immunization Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for vaccinations, said when he testified against Kruse’s bill in January.
“If you do not have to get a vaccine for these [diseases] as a hospital worker, as a doctor, as a nurse, as somebody who works in health care, you’re not only making a decision for yourself,” Glew said. “You’re making a decision for everyone else you treat, too. You’re putting them at risk.”
Nationwide, the bills could face opposition from both business and public health groups, said Dorit Reiss, a professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.
That’s exactly what happened in Indiana, where the state Chamber of Commerce, health care groups and public health experts all opposed Kruse’s bill. His legislation also would have allowed workers who had been punished by their employers for refusing a vaccine to sue for damages.
Republican state Sen. Phil Boots, who co-sponsored the bill, killed it last week by declining to bring it up for a committee vote.
“There was simply not enough support for the bill to move forward in the legislative process,” he said in an email to Stateline. “Many of my colleagues felt that federal exemptions are adequate … and that the bill went too far in the potential employer penalties."
A similar bill in North Dakota has failed, and most of the other bills have yet to receive serious consideration. But vaccine skeptics say they’re not giving up.
“We are just getting started,” said Ashley Grogg, founder of Hoosiers for Medical Liberty, a group that represents vaccine skeptics and worked with Kruse on his bill. “There’s going to be more to come next year.”
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