Alabama House advances protection for workers who decline COVID-19 vaccine, bills move to Senate

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Alabama House of Representatives has advanced legislation to prevent companies from firing workers who claim a religious or medical exemption to COVID-19 vaccination mandates.

The House of Representatives voted 67-23 for the bill Thursday.

It now returns to the Alabama Senate, which can accept the House changes or send the bill to a conference committee.

The job measure, SB9, would create medical and religious belief exemptions to the vaccine requirement. The vaccine passport bill, SB15, is sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur.

It is similar to a measure passed earlier this year, but the new bill calls for Attorney General Steve Marshall to sue businesses or governments who require people to show proof of vaccination in order to gain entry.

The two measures, with slightly different language, were adopted by the Alabama Senate Tuesday.

The jobs measure would conflict with a federal mandate issued by President Biden which requires federal workers and federal contractors to be vaccinated by Nov. 22.

The Alabama House Health Committee approved both measures Wednesday after public hearings.

State Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, said SB9 is designed to protect jobs and workers and the presumption is that the workers are entitled to the exemption. He said the measure creates a form that workers – facing a possible job termination because they have refused a COVID-19 vaccination – that is simple to fill out.

“Basically this is a bill that would create exemptions from the COVID-19 vaccination for medical reasons or because of sincerely held religious beliefs upon submission of a standard exemption form,” Jones told the committee. “Protections provided by this section are to be liberally construed in favor of the employee and would go into effect immediately upon passage and signed by the governor.”

Because Alabama is an at-will employment state, Jones was also asked how this would affect an employer’s right to terminate an employee. He said the only carve-out exemption applied was COVID-19.

The Business Council of Alabama, the state’s most powerful business group opposes the measure. The BCA’s interim executive director Robin Stone told the committee employers should be able to make their own decisions about their workforce and the proposed legislation would further complicate the landscape for employers.

“The current vaccine mandate bills moving through the Alabama Legislature, while well-intended, cause confusion and place Alabama employers in a no-win situation by forcing them to comply with conflicting proposed state legislation and existing federal orders,” Stone said. He added a business complying with the federal mandate is not the same thing as agreeing with the mandate.

Stone said court action, such as the lawsuit filed by Attorney General Steve Marshall and supported by Gov. Kay Ivey, is the best way to challenge the federal mandate.

Senate Bill 9 includes a handful of proposed COVID-19 vaccination exemptions that will be listed on a form for employers to give employees.

The new draft bill has gone back to the Alabama Senate for review.

According to the Senate Conference Committee draft bill, this is the form’s list of exemptions:

CHECK ALL EXEMPTIONS THAT APPLY:  

  • My health care provider has recommended to me that I refuse the COVID-19 vaccination based on my current health conditions and medications. (NOTE: You must include a liccensed health care provider’s signature on this from to claim this exemption.) 
  • I have previously suffered a severe allergic reaction (e.g., anaphylaxis) related to vaccinations in the past.
  • I have previously suffered a severe allergic reaction related to receiving polyethylene glycol or products containing polyethlene glycol.
  • I have previously suffered a severe allergic reaction related to receiving polysorbate or products containing polysorbate.
  • I have received monoclonal antibodies or convalescent plasma as part of a COVID-19 treatment in the past 90 days.
  • I have a bleeding disorder or am taking a blood thinner.
  • I have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the past 12 months.  
  • I am severely immunocompromised such that receiving the  COVID-19 vaccine creates a risk to my health.
  • I am requesting exemption from the COVID-19 vaccine requirements for sincerely held religious beliefs, practices or observances.

Jones was asked during the committee hearing if an employee had to provide medical documentation to back up the selected claim on the form.

Jones said he didn’t know. He said some people he’s asked think yes and some think no.

He was also asked to define “sincerely held religious belief” and he said he couldn’t Jones said in reviewing federal law most such claims haven’t been challenged.

The original draft can be read here and the latest version can be read here.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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