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Exemptions to COVID vaccine rules face opposition in Senate committee

Business associations argue employers should decide whether to require vaccination

Bills that would bar government entities from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations and require private employers to grant religious exemptions continued to face pushback from business associations Wednesday.

But the business groups and health care associations that testified against the bills during a hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Consumer Protection, Energy and the Environment, said they’re the “most reasonable” out of the numerous proposals filed this session that aim to push back on vaccine requirements.

“We believe that employers have had the long legal right to require vaccines in the workplace,” said Kara Corches, lobbyist for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “Our stance on this is pretty simple: Let business decide.”

A bill sponsored by Rep. Bill Hardwick, R-Waynesville, would bar government agencies, including state departments and school districts, from requiring a COVID-19 vaccine, tying “any personal right” or service to someone’s vaccination status or imposing fines, taxes or criminal or civil penalties based on whether someone has received the COVID-19 vaccine.

The bill would provide exceptions for health care providers, such as hospitals and long term care facilities, and universities that are subject to federal vaccine requirements issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Hardwick said his bill is trying to address a “clash of liberties” between businesses’ right to make decisions on who they work with and to be free from government interference and the rights of individuals to make medical decisions over what goes into their body.

A bill sponsored by Rep. David Evans, R-West Plains, would stipulate that employers must give “reasonable accommodations” to employees who have sincerely held religious beliefs that prevent them from taking the COVID-19 vaccine.

Hardwick’s bill would also exempt employees from being required to receive “medical treatments” more broadly beyond just COVID-19 as a condition of employment if it violates religious beliefs or for medical reasons. Both bills would allow employees to be eligible to receive worker’s compensation if they sustained injuries as a result of their employer’s medical requirement.

Both bills passed the House last month, and many of the groups who testified against them Wednesday opposed the bills in a January House hearing.

Ray McCarty, the president and CEO of the Associated Industries of Missouri, said most employers already recognize religious and medical exemptions to vaccine mandates.

“We believe the employers should be able to set the rules within their own workplace,” said McCarty, who testified against both bills.

Sen. Mike Cierpiot, R-Lee’s Summit and chair of the committee, said businesses have stressed to him to not “make us pick between violating federal law or state law.”

“They don’t want to be there. They don’t want to even deal with this,” Cierpiot said. “They just want to do what they do.”

Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis argued COVID-19 is now “an ubiquitous virus” and that individuals retain their rights within the workplace.

“They do not become serfs. They do not become slaves,” Onder said. “They do not become the property of their employer.”

Shannon Copper, a lobbyist testifying in opposition on behalf of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, said that businesses’ policies are often dictated by the workforce, especially as employers struggle to fill open positions amid the pandemic.

“Our employees are our most valuable asset we have,” Cooper said, “and we don’t take their concerns lightly.”

While the bills carve out exemptions for employees who oppose the vaccine, Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, posed what protections would be in place for others.

“What about the employee who has sensitive health issues, and they’re concerned. What protections are in place for them?,” May said, later adding: “We have to protect employees both ways.”

Evans said “it’s a balancing act,” and that employers can’t ignore the religious rights of one in favor of the rights of another.

An amendment added to Evans’ bill on the House floor would also bar hospitals and physicians from considering someone’s COVID vaccination status when weighing whether they are eligible to receive or donate an organ for transplant.

Heidi Geisbuhler Sutherland, the Missouri State Medical Association’s director of government relations, said she was not aware of patients being denied transplants in Missouri, but noted that at the Medical University of South Carolina, 23 patients were set to be removed from a transplant waiting list for failing to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

No action was taken on either bill during Wednesday’s hearing.

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