COVID-19 vaccine mandate ban legislation clears first hurdle, adds unemployment benefits
A bill to effectively ban private companies from enforcing COVID-19 vaccine mandates cleared its first hurdle at the Statehouse Thursday.
The panel first made a few changes. The bill allows businesses to require weekly COVID-19 testing for employees who refuse to get the vaccine. And it says those businesses can’t charge their employees for the tests.
Now, bill author Rep. Matt Lehman (R-Berne) said companies can get reimbursed by the state for those supplies.
“Then you can apply to [Department of Workforce Development] for reimbursement paid out of any state or federal funds that go towards COVID,” Lehman said.
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That was a sticking point for some business. But every major health care and business organization in the state still opposes the overall bill.
Lehman said his measure is trying to walk a fine line.
“That place between an employer's right to do what employers have a right to do as private enterprise, at the same time not interfering with the firmly held beliefs or the medical conditions of their employees,” Lehman said.
Lawmakers also added language to make unemployment benefits available for workers who are fired for applying for a vaccine exemption under the proposed rules and get fired instead. It's meant to act as a punishment for employers who don't comply by raising their contributions to the state's unemployment insurance trust fund.
The Department of Workforce Development said, currently, workers can’t claim unemployment benefits if the employer has a "reasonable" vaccination policy.
Rep. Dan Leonard (R-Huntington) has worked on unemployment insurance legislation for years and opposed the new language in the committee. Without saying if he believes workers should be eligible for benefits, he argued unemployment isn't the best system to use for a penalty because each employer pays into it differently.
“I’d like to see the unemployment portion taken out and come up with a different system if we’re going to penalize employers,” Leonard said. “We’re going to penalize some employers a lot more than we penalize [other] employers depending on their status with the unemployment system.”
There’s also an entirely separate part of the bill that aims to help Gov. Eric Holcomb end the public health emergency. Holcomb requested a few changes to state law that will ensure Indiana can continue running COVID-10 clinics and won’t lose millions in federal funding tied to the pandemic.