116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
DES MOINES — Iowans who lose their jobs for refusing to comply with an employer's COVID-19 vaccination requirement would still be able to collect unemployment benefits under legislation passed Thursday by the General Assembly and headed to Gov. Kim Reynolds for her expected signature.
House File 902, a bill intended to soften the financial blow associated with COVID-19 related firings, also would allow employees in private Iowa businesses to claim they are medically vulnerable or have a religious objection to a mandated vaccine based solely on their statements, rather than with the backing by a bona fide professional.
The measure passed the Iowa House by a 68-27 margin, and later cleared the Iowa Senate on a 45-4 vote.
“I believe the bill will help people,” said Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, chair of the House State Government Committee, which initiated the late-arriving bill added to the agenda of Thursday’s special legislative session. “I do recognize that it does not go as far as a lot of us — myself included — would like.” But he added, “I believe what is before us is what can become law.”
Kaufmann agreed with other GOP legislators who wanted to go further in barring vaccination mandates in workplaces and schools in calling for an interim panel to consider expansions when lawmakers convene for their regular session in January or possibly in a third special session this year.
Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, said the bill would create a more lenient system for Iowans who lose their jobs for refusing to comply with an employer’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement, but would “absolutely not” protect anyone from being fired. “It doesn’t protect a job of a single Iowan who loses their job,” she told colleagues during House floor debate.
Democrats, who are in the minority, expressed concern the measure was creating a new workplace exemption in Iowa law that makes it possible for anyone to claim a medical exemption without having backup from a doctor or other accredited professional. Also, they said the religious exemption was not well-defined in a policy change that needed a fiscal note from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency to understand the cost implications for the state’s unemployment trust fund and potential rates charged to employers to cover the payments.
Rep. Henry Stone, R-Forest City, said the bill was intended to find a meaningful solution to a vaccine mandate handed down by the federal government that would balance the rights of individuals with the rights of businesses owners by helping the employees who don’t feel comfortable receiving the vaccine but not placing businesses in a position where they have to choose between breaking state law or federal law.
“We needed to take the action now,” said Stone, noting that some Iowa workers are facing the prospects of losing their jobs over the issue. “January will be too late for Iowans,” he said, contending the bill “will go on to save jobs.”
On the Senate side, Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha, pressed the bill’s floor manager, Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Aurelia, on the potential cost — especially to businesses — and the number of employees who could be affected.
Schultz said he could not put a reliable estimate on the legislation, which he confided made him a little uneasy. “I don’t want to have to do this. Nobody does,” he said. “We’re reacting to authoritarianism. We didn’t ask to do this.”
Rep. Bruce Hunter, D-Des Moines, said it was telling that no one spoke in support of the bill during a House subcommittee earlier in the day.
“We, the people, were blindsided with last-minute legislation that is ineffective and designed to look good, but fail,” said Lindsay Mayor, a leader in the Informed Choice Iowa group. “The public hasn’t even had 24-hour’s notice to examine the language and consider the impacts of the bill.”
J.D. Davis, an Iowa Association of Business & Industry vice president, spoke in opposition to the measure as drafted, saying it would place businesses in “a terrible position” as they try to wade through various federal or state requirements that may be in conflict with the new language without really solving the problem it was intended to address.
Other speakers — some who traveled to the Capitol to participate in a rally opposing government-mandated vaccinations — called the legislation a “Band Aid” that actually would help employers more than workers, while a number of Iowans and legislators were upset that more public discussion did not go into the drafting of a measure carrying broad policy implications.
“The teacher in me says this deserves an incomplete,” said Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, who had hoped the measure would be tabled.
Vaccine requirements have not universally said that employees who refuse would be fired. Some mandates say those who refuse inoculation must undergo regular COVID-19 testing instead.
Earlier this month, Reynolds said she was having “great conversations” with legislative leaders regarding the potential for considering legislation during the special session to prohibit workplace requirements that workers get COVID-19 vaccinations as an employment requirement. However, the bill did not include language to prohibit vaccination mandates in the workplace. The governor said Statehouse Republicans were looking at the issue after her legal adviser determined she did not have the authority under Iowa’s constitution to issue an executive order prohibiting any entity, including private businesses, from imposing COVID-19 vaccination requirements on employees or customers as has been done in other states.
According to the bill, an employer who requires an employee, including a job applicant, to receive a COVID-19 vaccine must waive the requirement if the employee requests a waiver and makes either of two submissions to the employer: a statement that receiving the vaccine would be injurious to the health and well-being of the employee or an individual residing with the employee; or a statement that receiving the vaccine would conflict with the tenets and practices of a religion of which the employee is an adherent or member. The bill also provides that an individual who is fired for refusing to receive a vaccination against COVID-19 must not be disqualified for unemployment benefits because of it.
“We respect people’s medical privacy and civil rights and we don’t feel it’s the state government’s job to step on those rights,” Stone said.
Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, called the legislation “a joke” because all it was doing was offering a “consolation prize” of unemployment benefits to Iowans who are losing their jobs. “This does nothing but giving you chump change for your freedom.”
However, House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said the bill creates a process businesses must follow to allow medical and religious exemptions from any COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
"After months of hard work, careful consideration, and listening to the stories of Iowans, I believe we have found a meaningful solution to protect Iowans and Iowa businesses from the Biden administration's extreme government overreach,” said Grassley, who noted the bill passed with bipartisan support.
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