Montgomery, Ala. (AP) — In an effort to fight vaccination requirements on workers, Alabama lawmakers on Thursday approved legislation to prevent companies from firing workers who claim religious or medical exemptions.
Republicans said they were responding to outrage from unaffiliated constituents over fears of losing their jobs because of the Biden administration’s vaccination mandate over federal contractors or their employers’ own vaccination mandates. Democrats argued that the bill would endanger both federal contractors and public health in order to score political points.
The Republican-sponsored bill states that employers must exempt employees from the COVID-19 vaccination requirement if they return a new standardized state form to claim a religious or medical exemption. Alabama lawmakers gave final approval to the bill late Thursday after votes that mostly broke along party lines. Now it goes to Alabama Gov. K Ive.
Republican Sen. Chris Elliott, sponsor of the bill, said lawmakers wanted to “stand in the gap and provide some protection for employees” while federal courts hear state challenges to mandates on federal contractors.
“There are people in the state of Alabama who are hurting right now, who are trying to make a decision about getting a vaccine that they fear… they are at risk of losing their jobs because of a federal mandate that is really unnecessary. are,” Elliot said.
Republican Representative Mike Jones of Andalusia said the federal government already allows exemptions for medical and religious reasons and that lawmakers are trying to provide an easier way for employees to claim those exemptions. “They’re afraid of losing their jobs for 20 years, very good jobs they’ve had with federal contractors,” Jones said.
Jones said they are trying to find a way to protect employees without harming federal contractors who face a federal mandate to vaccinate their workforce. But House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels argued that the bill would do the same by interfering with the company’s ability to comply with federal mandates.
“I’m angry as hell right now, because it’s a job killer,” Daniels said, adding that federal contractors provide many jobs in and around her Huntsville district.
Other Democrats said the GOP proposal would create a wide-open portal for people to fraudulently claim exemptions from vaccination mandates without actually valid reason.
“You know and I know, everyone, even atheists, are going to come and say it’s because of their religious beliefs,” said Democratic Rep. Peblin Warren.
Under the law, employees would check a box on a new form for the reason that they could not vaccinate — such as a religious reason, certain qualifying medical conditions such as allergies or taking blood thinners, or a signed recommendation from health providers. The person should not be vaccinated. There will be no need to provide proof of status or religious belief. An employee denied the exemption can appeal to the state labor department.
The proposal differs from existing legislation that allows companies to lay off employees at will. The bill specifies that it will not change an employer’s ability to terminate an employee for reasons other than the employee’s COVID-19 vaccination status.
The new process and job security will automatically expire on May 1, 2023, unless extended by lawmakers.
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 has drawn opposition from a business group, which said it would put federal contractors in a no-win situation.
“Non-compliance with federal mandates could result in loss of current and future contracts and jobs for their companies and communities,” Alabama’s Business Council said in a statement.
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.
Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.