Bill requiring employers to have COVID-19 vaccination exemptions added to W.Va. Special Session

Published: Oct. 13, 2021 at 9:42 AM EDT
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) – Two agenda items have been added to the West Virginia Special Session, including COVID-19 vaccination exemptions.

Gov. Jim Justice added a bill to amend the code relating to COVID-19 vaccination requirements for employment in the public and private sectors.

The new section provides for exemptions for medical contraindications and for those with religious beliefs that prevent an employee or prospective employee from taking a COVID-19 vaccine.

“I’ve stood rock solid that I’m against mandates,” Gov. Justice said. “I firmly believe that this country is founded upon our rights and freedoms. That’s really the ingredient that makes America great.”

The draft bill states that “current or prospective employees would be exempt from such immunization requirements upon the presentation of a certification to the employer, signed by a licensed physician or an advanced practice registered nurse” that has examined the employee stating that their physical condition is such that a COVID-19 immunization is contraindicated.

The draft bill also says a covered employer cannot penalize or discriminate against a current or prospective employee for exercising exemption rights based on religious beliefs.

“The bill, as it’s laid forward, is going to require a person to have a certification from their physician or nurse practitioner in order to get that exemption,” Del. Amy Summers (R-Taylor) said. “They’re not just going to write that themselves and pass that off to their employer, they are going to have to have a certification from one of those individuals.”

Del. Summers and Sen. Eric Tarr (R-Putnam) requested the bill be added to the special session agenda. Gov. Justice approved their request which brought it to the table of lawmakers on Wednesday.

On Wednesday, Del. Doug Skaff (D-Kanawha) said the bill would make certain private businesses in violation and he urged they wait until the federal guidelines are released.

“This is a redistricting special session that got hijacked by this bill a couple days before the federal requirements and OSHA guidelines come out, which risks putting every one of our businesses in violation, right off the bat,” Skaff said. “They already allow for exemptions, they have their own review exemption boards and committee set up. I don’t know, but I didn’t get elected up here to tell everybody how to run their business.”

Summers said the state can not wait for federal regulations around vaccine mandates to be implemented in the coming days because people could lose their job before then.

“They’re concerned they’re going to be losing their jobs because they understand the businesses can require a vaccine, they understand the mandate, but they have concerns where they think that they deserve an exemption for perhaps a medical reason,” Summers said. “Maybe it’s a young mother who is breast feeding. Maybe it is someone who is pregnant. I’ve heard many concerns from those individuals that they would like to have a medical exemption to taking the vaccine at this time.”

Skaff said every Chamber of Commerce member and the hospital association are not for this bill.

“We’re going to say ‘we don’t care about you, we don’t care about you businesses, we don’t care about the hospitals, we don’t care if you lose your Medicare, Medicaid, funding, we’re going to pass something and just figure it out later.’ We have time, we have time to see what the guidelines say.”

The draft bill also has an exemption for an employee or potential hire who has developed COVID-19 antibodies from being exposed to the COVID-19 virus or has recovered from COVID-19 complications.

“Now, I stand behind the rights of our private businesses, but at the same time, they need to comply with the law of the land,” Gov. Justice continued. “This is a common sense bill because federal law already says you have to allow for these exemptions. Our military has mandated vaccines. However, they are allowing these exemptions to be claimed. Our own Attorney General, Patrick Morrisey, has written a legal opinion which confirms that we must offer these exemptions.”

The governor said Wednesday during a press briefing that this bill would still allow businesses to mandate COVID-19 vaccines, so long as the appropriate exemptions are available.

The governor said this bill does not affect any other vaccines that are currently mandated in public schools such as the mumps, measles and rubella.

“Even though I wholeheartedly support the COVID vaccine, and I will continue to encourage people to take the COVID vaccine because I truly believe in my heart that it is very safe, it should not be mandated when it hasn’t even been approved for children ages 5 to 11 yet,” Gov. Justice added. “We’ve all heard the stories, recently, about West Virginians being fired from their jobs for not taking the COVID vaccine and that’s not right.”

The vaccination mandate exemption bill was introduced in the House and Senate on Wednesday, and could be voted on as soon as Thursday after passing the House Government Organization Committee. At that meeting, leaders from the West Virginia Hospital Association and the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce spoke against the legislation because it would greatly impact businesses and open the possibility to multiple lawsuits from employees.

The amendment to the Special Session call also includes a bill to provide a supplemental appropriation of $4 million to backfill the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) grants, which go toward providing direct services such as counseling, personal advocacy, court advocacy, client transportation, and support services to victims of crimes including domestic violence, sexual violence, child abuse, and elder abuse.

The bill will now go for a second reading where it can be amended or possibly passed on Thursday.

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