Lawmakers introduce bill that would block employers from requiring vaccines against COVID-19, other diseases

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal

Lawmakers are considering a move to bar employers from mandating vaccinations, an effort that experts believe has its roots in the anti-vaccine movement and comes as millions of Americans are getting inoculated against COVID-19.

Nursing home facilities in other states have required employees to get the vaccine because of their work with high-risk individuals, although there are no confirmed reports of workplaces taking that step in Kansas.

But vaccine requirements are usually most prevalent for other diseases, such as influenza or hepatitis. Restaurants will often require shots to keep diners safe and hospitals and day care facilities will do the same, especially if a worker is interacting with immunocompromised individuals.

But Sen. Mark Steffen, R-Hutchinson, who authored Senate Bill 213, has framed it as a way of preserving the decision-making process for individual employees.

Opposing him is an alliance of business groups and public health entities that argue the proposal would be detrimental to both the health and welfare of Kansans and the bottom line for businesses that may need to protect their employees and customers.

At least 23 states have considered similar requirements, according to a report from the Pew Trusts, although none have advanced in the legislative process and experts believe Kansas would be the first state to impose such a requirement if they were to approve the bill.

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Lawmakers are considering a move to bar employers from mandating vaccinations, which comes as millions of Americans are getting inoculated against COVID-19.

Dorit Reiss, a professor at the University of California's Hastings School of Law and an expert on vaccine law, said that tying the hands of employers is the opposite of how public health regulations usually work.

"This would be the first time the government steps in (to say), 'You can't make your workplace safer. You think this would improve your workplace safety? That's too bad. We're putting in place this requirement,' " Reiss said.

Steffen framed it as an important way of shielding workers, while also ensuring businesses aren't held liable over the possibility that one of their employees experiences an adverse reaction to a vaccine.

"This bill is one little step in the direction of protecting our fundamental rights to our own body," he said.

But Reiss noted that there are already federal protections in place for individuals to refuse vaccines on religious or medical grounds.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled in December that employers do have the ability to require their workers to get the COVID-19 vaccine and can even bar employees who refuse from coming to work.

Some employers have been hesitant to mandate their workers get the vaccine because shots made by both Pfizer and Moderna are still under emergency-use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. Many individuals are also having a difficult time getting an appointment to receive the shot, making a mandate difficult to enforce.

Still, for many business advocates, including Eric Stafford, a lobbyist for the Kansas Chamber, the federal guidelines are enough.

Stafford noted that virtually all of the Chamber's members, when surveyed, said they wouldn't require vaccinations for their workers but wanted the flexibility to do so.

"Ultimately, this is best left to employers and employees to decide what's best for them," he said. "And we do not believe government should have any role in determining this."

Rep. John Eplee, R-Atchison, said Thursday he was opposed to legislation that would bar employers from requiring that their workers be vaccinated, citing a legal and health risk to the state.

Rep. John Eplee, R-Atchison, who serves as a primary care physician, said there was also a risk of lawsuits. Individuals who were exposed to an infectious disease, such as the flu, could take a business or hospital to court if employees weren't vaccinated.

"I remain concerned that if we would pass, Senate Bill 213 will expend state resources in a very losing battle," Eplee said. "And I'm really questioning why would you do that."

Sen. Rob Olson, an Olathe Republican who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, said he would weigh the extensive testimony heard in his committee Thursday. But he noted that "I don't think I'm moving forward with it."

"We have a short time yet and it needs a lot of work," Olson said.

Still, Reiss said that the legislation was significant, even if it didn't move forward, saying it is a sign of the growing public policy influence of those who are opposed to vaccinations.

She noted that it shows the movement is stretching into state capitols — and into the mainstream.

"They can reach people who are not anti-vaccine and trick them into doing things that serve the anti-vaccine interest," Reiss said. "I think that is the warning here."

A long line of vaccine skeptics testified in support of the bill Thursday. One said that government and health care leaders were "bullying" residents into getting the shots, while another compared vaccines to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

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Presenters also zeroed in on the COVID-19 vaccines, arguing the speed with which they were rolled out was evidence they were unsafe.

But extensive clinical trials demonstrated the shots' safety. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows only 11 individuals per 1 million doses experience serious allergic reactions and over 90% of side effects from the vaccine are deemed nonserious.

The pace with which the shots were brought to market was also helped by the fact that mRNA technology has been used in past vaccines, with researchers building on efforts to develop immunizations against SARS and other diseases.

While many Kansans are hesitant about getting the COVID-19 vaccine, it isn't necessarily that they are opposed to all vaccinations, experts say. Rather, they may be waiting to see how their friends, colleagues and neighbors respond to the shots before making a decision.

Still, several legislators expressed skepticism of how health groups and pharmaceutical companies were promoting the COVID-19 vaccine and, in some cases, even appeared leery of vaccines in general.

Sen. Alicia Straub, R-Ellinwood, said her daughter experienced a seizure just days after getting a tetanus vaccine and she wasn't satisfied with the response from the CDC, which termed her daughter's reaction a "moderate" side effect.

"I fully understand the risk of vaccines, and in this case, I just don't think that the risk outweighs the benefit," she said.

Steffen said in an interview after the hearing that he felt the COVID-19 vaccine was safe and effective but maintained he was unconvinced by efforts by the CDC, World Health Organization and other public health agencies to promote its use.

"For me, they've set a failure to communicate earnestly with us," he said. "I'm not buying much of anything they say without a ton of my own due diligence."

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Gretchen Homan, a Wichita pediatrician and president-elect of the Kansas chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said the anti-vaccine rhetoric espoused during the hearing is dangerous. 

But she said it originates "from a small number of people" while the "far majority of people understand that vaccines are safe and necessary."

"I keep thinking of the advice from 'Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood,' " Homan said. "He said, 'In times of trouble look for the helpers.' Please, in this time of decision, look to those who are motivated to help, who offer facts and who have dedicated their careers to help promote healthy lives for Kansans."