Proposals that would bar COVID-19 vaccine mandates and provide greater exemptions for vaccinations more broadly faced a wave of opposition from Missouri business groups Wednesday.
Representatives for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Associated Industries of Missouri, Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and other business associations made clear to lawmakers that they’re against government mandates — regardless of whether they would require or prohibit a COVID-19 vaccine.
“Our stance on this is really simple: Let business decide,” said Kara Corches, the Missouri Chamber of Commerce’s vice president of governmental affairs. “These are business decisions. Every employer is different.”
Bills heard by the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday would ban various government bodies, including school districts, from requiring a COVID-19 vaccine, prohibit employers more broadly in Missouri from discriminating against an employee based on their COVID vaccination status and allow employees to be eligible to receive benefits if a COVID vaccine mandated by their employer was a factor in an injury, disability or death.
Another bill would stipulate that employers must allow for religious or medical exemptions, including proof of acquired immunity, to any mandated vaccination.
Other bills would make it an “unlawful discriminatory practice” to require people take a medication that’s not fully authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, is authorized under emergency use or still undergoing safety trials if they object due to “religious beliefs, moral convictions, or philosophical reasons,” and prohibits punishing someone for refusing to do so.
“This bill is not about what medicines you should take,” said Rep. Bill Hardwick, R-Waynesville and a sponsor of a bill that would bar government mandates. “It’s about what rights you should have.”
Business groups and some Republican lawmakers on the committee said that implementing mandates — whether for or against requiring a vaccine — would limit the options available to businesses at a time when they’re struggling to hold on to and attract employees.
“At the end of the day, the folks that own these businesses, they put their life and their soul and their finances into that,” said Shannon Cooper, a lobbyist testifying on behalf of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. “They’re going to make the best decisions for their employees, whether they want them all to be vaccinated, whether they don’t want them to be vaccinated or whether they don’t care.”
David Overfelt, president of the Missouri Retailers Association, director of the Missouri Tire Industry Association and a lobbyist for the Missouri Grocers’ Association, said each of the associations is concerned bills could create civil liability for businesses and open them to lawsuits.
While some of the bills don’t impose fines, “that doesn’t mean that the attorney general couldn’t come after your business and levy a huge fine,” Overfelt said, “because he has very broad authority on these types of issues.”
Hardwick said decisions about what a person puts into their body and their medical choices should be an area in which exemptions are permitted. His bill would allow employees to be exempt from employer-mandated medical treatments due to religious, medical and conscientious objections, or if an alternative medical treatment is available that would ensure the reasonable safety of other employees or customers.
Rep. Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville, called the exemptions “window dressings for nothing,” arguing that conscientious objections are too vague and broad of a category.
Hardwick’s bill would also define an employer under a section of state law that limits it to a business with six or more employees.
“You don’t have an absolute right to a job,” Veit said, arguing an employer also has an obligation to keep a working environment safe for their employees.
However, Rep. David Evans, R-West Plains and chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said employees have rights of their own and noted religious exemptions have long been recognized as valid medical exemptions prior to the COVID-19 vaccine.
“It’s becoming more and more accepted that since we don’t believe in the ways of others that somehow the beliefs of others are untrue,” said Evans, whose bill allowing for accommodations to be made for exemptions was also heard Wednesday, “and that bothers me.”
Healthcare groups, including the Missouri State Medical Association and Missouri Health Care Association, which represents long-term care facilities, also expressed opposition Wednesday to the bills.
While a majority of the testimony was in opposition, Melinda Clark-Sann, a Kansas City area attorney who specializes in employment and labor law, said that a recently passed Kansas law that allowed for exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine requirements, civil penalties for violations and established a complaint process has helped her “tremendously” representing clients in Kansas.
“I don’t have that type of leverage in Missouri yet,” said Clark-Sann, who testified in support of a bill sponsored by Rep. Jeff Coleman, R-Grain Valley, that would allow for employees to bring forth lawsuits against employers requiring vaccinations.
The bills heard Wednesday are just a sample of numerous pieces of legislation filed this session that address vaccines, masks and mitigation measures in schools
The backlash to COVID-19 vaccines — and immunizations more broadly — comes at a time when Missouri is seeing record hospitalizations of COVID patients and tests are scarce. Several state lawmakers have also been absent from the Capitol in the session’s first few weeks as they isolate at home after contracting the virus.
As the globe is poised to enter the third year of the pandemic amid stagnating vaccination rates, Missouri still lags behind in its own vaccination rate — falling in the bottom quarter of states.
As of Tuesday, 56.8% of Missourians five years and older were fully vaccinated, compared with 66.6% of the same segment nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. State efforts to boost vaccination rates, from a statewide lottery to a local gift card program, had minimal results.
In addition to imposing limits on the length and scope of public health orders, a new law lawmakers passed last year also barred municipalities that receive public funds from requiring documentation of someone’s COVID vaccination status to access transportation of public accommodations.
Top Missouri Republicans have also made clear their opposition to requiring the COVID-19 vaccine.
Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who is running for U.S. Senate, has spearheaded lawsuits at a federal level against vaccine rules and has repeatedly targeted public health orders at a local level.
Gov. Mike Parson, who has publicized his own COVID-19 vaccination, has stressed a mantra of personal responsibility when it comes to whether residents should get vaccinated. He previously said that while he would not mandate vaccine passports at a state level, he would be fine with their being implemented in the private sector.
In October, he issued an executive order directing state agencies to not require those with religious or medical exemptions from taking a vaccine or penalize them for not getting one.
This article by Tessa Weinberg is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.