Government Connection

Republicans are changing state laws to try to get out of federal vaccine mandates

Republican lawmakers across the country look determined to take on the Biden administration's insistence that employers require their workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19. The Kansas legislature meets in special session starting Monday, November 29, 2021, to engage in battle with the federal government over the vaccine mandates. But courts will likely have the final say on whether the mandates are legal, and some worry such bold action could further atrophy the state's ability to respond to public health crises and could put employers in a legal quandary. Last week, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration paused enforcement of its own temporary emergency standard requiring companies with 100 employees or more to mandate that workers either get vaccinated or submit to regular testing by Jan. 4, 2022. Now that the rule is in legal limbo, it's unlikely the Republicans who dominate the legislature in Kansas will abandon plans to give workers the freedom to dodge the mandates. Kansas' drafted legislation mirrors  a new law passed in Iowa that expands an individual's ability to refuse the vaccine  and keep their job — or, get unemployment benefits. Conservative lawmakers in Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Tennessee, Wyoming and North Dakota have already completed special sessions and passed bills aimed at nullifying new federal mandates. Lawmakers in Florida passed a bill that would fine businesses $10,000 per violation if they didn't offer a number of exemptions to their employees. The governor in Wyoming signed only one of the 20 bills that were written during the special session — a law that gives his office $4 million dollars to challenge federal vaccine mandates. The new Iowa law directs employers to waive vaccine requirements for any workers who say they believe the vaccine would hurt their health or wellbeing or that of someone they live with, or if they say it would conflict with their religion. And they don't need to provide any proof. Five of the states, including Kansas and Iowa, will elect governors next year. State lawmakers in Kansas passed a bill earlier this year modifying the Kansas Emergency Management Act to shift power away from local public health officials and the governor and toward elected county commissioners. Yet even if the federal mandate is struck down, new state laws making changes to religious exemptions in Kansas could transform the legal and public health systems for years to come.

November 23, 2021

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