The Alabama House of Representatives on Thursday advanced legislation to prevent companies from firing workers who claim a religious or medical exemption to COVID-19 vaccination mandates — with lawmakers taking opposing views on whether the measure would be a “job killer” or a job protection measure.
Republicans said they were responding to an outcry from constituents afraid of losing their jobs because they haven’t gotten vaccinated. Democrats said the bill would jeopardize both federal contractors in the state and public health for the sake of scoring political points.
The House of Representatives voted 67-23 for the bill in a vote that fell along party lines. The bill now goes to a conference committee.
The Republican-sponsored bill says 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. Employees would check a box for the reason they couldn’t get vaccinated — such as a religious reason, certain qualifying medical conditions or a health providers’ signed recommendation. There would be no other requirement to prove the exemption.
“They’re fearful of losing jobs they’ve had for 20 years, very good jobs that they had with federal contractors,” said Republican Rep. Mike Jones of Andalusia, adding that some people are “truly afraid of the vaccine.”
Jones said they were trying to find a way to protect employees who are afraid of getting vaccinated without hurting federal contractors who face a federal mandate to get their workforces vaccinated. But House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels 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.
“You cannot say you are pro-business in introducing this piece of legislation.”
Other Democrats said the GOP proposal would create a wide-open portal for people to claim an exemption to the vaccination mandate without truly having a valid reason.
“You know and I know, everybody, even atheists everybody is going to come up and say it’s because of their religious beliefs,” Democratic Rep. Pebblin Warren said.
The bill gives several medical conditions, such as taking a blood thinner, which would exempt an employee from the vaccination mandate. There would be no requirement to provide proof of the condition or religious belief. 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 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.
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.