MONTGOMERY, Ala. (NWN) — Alabama lawmakers advanced legislation Wednesday that aims to limit companies’ ability to fire employees who say they can’t get vaccinated against COVID-19 for religious or medical reasons.
The House Health Committee approved a revised version of the Senate-passed bill designed to shield workers from facing federal vaccination mandates. It now goes to the full Alabama House of Representatives.
The amended bill would mandate businesses that require COVID-19 vaccinations to distribute a form where employees can claim religious or medical exemptions through a standardized state form. An employee who submitted the form cannot be fired for being unaffiliated until the business has appealed and an administrative law judge from the Alabama Department of Labor declared the employee eligible.
“People are very afraid of losing their jobs. I’m hearing it from my community, people who have been working at the plants since the ’90s,” said Republican Representative Mike Jones, who was guarding the bill in the House.
The law comes as Republican leaders in several states try to find ways to protest federal vaccine mandates that they call a violation of personal liberty. The bill was opposed by a trade group that said it would put federal contractors in a no-win situation. And a member of the Democratic committee said it would threaten the health of other workers.
“Here we sit in the middle of one of the worst pandemics we have ever seen in our lifetime. We are trying to protect the rights of those who are not complying, but are disregarding the rights of those who want to be protected,” said Democratic Rep. Peblin Warren.
Alabama has seen at least 15,629 COVID-19 related deaths, and has the second highest per capita death rate from COVID-19 among the states, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University.
One of the state’s largest business groups opposed the bill, saying it interferes with private business decisions and puts federal contractors in a difficult position that could cost jobs.
Robin Stone of the Business Council of Alabama said it would create confusion and “put Alabama employers in a win-win situation by forcing them to comply with conflicting codes in state law and existing federal orders.”
Jones said he was trying to mediate changes to the bill to make it more attractive. He acknowledged that this is a “carve” for existing state law that would otherwise allow employers to fire workers at will.
The bill passed by the committee had several changes, such as requiring the employee to provide relevant information about a conflicting health condition. It also said that an administrative law judge would hear the appeals. However, Jones said he thought most employers would do away with the exemption.
One Republican who voted against the bill said he was concerned that the state was trying to fight “huge oversteps by the federal government,” by “controlling itself.”
“I certainly support people’s rights when it comes to the immunization status and whether they make that option themselves,” said Republican Rep. Joe Lowhorn of Auburn.
Republican-led states have turned to a mix of lawsuits, executive orders and legislation to oppose President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. The committee also approved a separate bill that empowers the state attorney general to enforce the state’s existing vaccine passport law that forbids businesses from serving unvaccinated customers.
Warren said her colleagues introduced the bill as a defense of people’s rights to make their own health decisions, but tried to take away rape victims’ right to get abortions several years ago. Alabama lawmakers approved a law banning nearly all abortions, but a federal judge blocked the law.
“It’s very confusing to me that we sat in this body and passed a bill that won’t protect a pregnant woman from rape, but we can sit here and get the rights of those who want to protect themselves and others.” Don’t want to keep people healthy,” Warren said.
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