Health Care

Alabama lawmakers approve job protections for unvaccinated

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In an effort to fight COVID-19 vaccination requirements on workers, Alabama lawmakers on Thursday approved legislation to prevent companies from firing workers who claim a religious or medical exemption.

Republicans said they were responding to an outcry from unvaccinated constituents afraid of losing their jobs because of the Biden administration’s vaccination mandate on federal contractors. Democrats argued the bill would put both federal contractors and public health in jeopardy for the sake of scoring political points.

The Republican-sponsored bill states employers must exempt employees from a COVID-19 vaccination requirement if the worker returns a new standardized state form to claim a religious or medical exemption. Alabama lawmakers gave final approval to the bill late Thursday night after votes that broke mostly along party lines. It now goes to Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey.

Republican Sen. Chris Elliott, the sponsor of the bill, said lawmakers wanted to “stand in the gap and provide some protection for employees” while federal courts hear lawsuits brought by Republican states challenging the mandate on federal contractors.

“There are people in the state of Alabama that are hurting right now, that are trying to decide about taking a vaccine that they are frightened of… They are in danger of losing their jobs due to federal mandates that are really unnecessary,” Elliott said.

Republican Rep. Mike Jones of Andalusia said the federal government already allows exemptions for medical and religious reasons and lawmakers are trying to provide an easy way for employees to claim those exemptions. “They’re fearful of losing jobs they’ve had for 20 years, very good jobs that they had with federal contractors,” Jones said.

Jones said they are trying to find a way to protect employees without hurting federal contractors who face the mandate. But House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, argued the bill would do just that by interfering with a company’s ability to comply with the federal mandate.

“I’m angry as hell right now, because this is a job killer,” said Daniels, saying that federal contractors provide many of the jobs in, and around, his Huntsville district.

Biden in September announced executive branch employees and contractors who do business with the federal government must be vaccinated — with no option to test out. Other rules will require companies with 100 or more employees to regularly test unvaccinated employees for COVID-19. While much of the debate centered on the federal vaccination requirement, it would also impact companies who wanted to independently place vaccination requirements on workers.

Some Democrats said the GOP proposal would create a wide-open portal for people to fraudulently claim an exemption to the vaccination mandate without truly having a valid reason.

“You know and I know, everybody, even atheists, is going to come up and say it’s because of their religious beliefs,” Democratic Rep. Pebblin Warren of Tuskegee said.

Under the legislation, employees would check a box in a new form for the reason they couldn’t get vaccinated — such as a religious reason, certain qualifying medical conditions, or a health providers’ signed recommendation that the person shouldn’t be vaccinated. There would be no requirement to provide proof of the reason. An employee denied an exemption could appeal to the state Department of Labor.

The proposal is a carve-out from existing law which allows companies to fire workers at will. The bill specifies that it wouldn’t alter the ability of an employer to terminate an employee for reasons other than the employee’s COVID-19 vaccination status.

The new process and job protections would automatically end on May 1, 2023, unless extended by lawmakers.

The legislation comes as Republican leaders in many states try to find ways to resist the federal vaccine mandate they call an infringement on personal liberties. The bill has drawn opposition from a business group, which said it would put federal contractors in a no-win situation.

“Non-compliance with the federal mandate could result in the loss of current and future contracts and jobs for their companies and communities,” the Business Council of Alabama said.

Lawmakers approved a separate bill requiring parental consent for minors to get vaccinated for COVID-19.

Alabama has seen at least 15,629 COVID-19 related deaths and has the second-highest per capita death rate from COVID-19 among states, according to researchers from Johns Hopkins University.

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