Some conservatives decry mandatory vaccinations for employees; Others point to at-will employment

By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports

Some conservatives are calling on the Idaho Legislature to reconvene in response to three of Idaho’s largest healthcare systems requiring their employees and contractors to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Thursday’s announcements from St. Alphonsus Health System, St. Luke’s Health System, and Primary Health Group prompted ire from a handful of politicians and conservative commentators. Almost immediately after the announcement from St. Alphonsus, KIDO host Kevin Miller said Gov. Brad Little should call lawmakers back to Boise to prevent mandatory vaccinations as a condition of employment. 

“Otherwise, it’s Saint Al’s today and your employer tomorrow,” Miller wrote. (Read more here: Idaho Legislature Must Respond to Saint Alphonsus)

“The Idaho legislature should pass Rep. Giddings’ H140 bill to protect workers from vaccination discrimination and privacy violations.”

Rep. Ron nate, r-rexburg, july 9 facebook post

Though Little signed an executive order preventing state agencies from requiring vaccinations, the order doesn’t stop private companies from doing so. St. Luke’s already requires employees to receive certain vaccinations, said physician executive Dr. James Souza in a Friday media call.

Health care providers aren’t the only employers that require vaccinations. In March, the Idaho Statesman reported Mickelson Farms, one of the state’s largest potato producers, would eventually require its employees to get inoculated against COVID-19.

The precedent didn’t stop the outrage. In a Friday letter to House Speaker Scott Bedke, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin asked leadership to call lawmakers back, as the announcements from the healthcare systems “left numerous employees with these major healthcare companies with little recourse for not wanting to take the emergency use authorized vaccine.” The letter also included a dig at Little, saying his order “only covers state agencies and leaves no recourse for citizens who do not work in state government.” McGeachin has announced she will challenge Little in next year’s GOP gubernatorial primary. (Read her full letter to Bedke below.)

“Our conservative default is to stay out of that and to not tell businesses what they can and cannot do with their employees.”

House Speaker scott bedke, r-oakley

On Friday afternoon, Bedke said lawmakers would take a look at McGeachin’s letter. But, he pointed out, Idaho is an at-will employment state — in other words, laws allow for employers to terminate employees for any reason at any time.

“Our conservative default is to stay out of that and to not tell businesses what they can and cannot do with their employees,” Bedke told Idaho Reports. “We pride ourselves in red tape reduction and a positive business climate.”

Bedke also pointed to existing exemptions in the health care providers’ policies. “There are exemptions there at this point. If you have sincerely held religious beliefs of disabilities, those are pretty broad,” he said. Similar broad exemptions exist in vaccination requirements for public school students.

Even if the majority of House members support preventing employers from firing unvaccinated employees, Bedke said lawmakers can’t do anything without sign-off from the Senate and the governor. The Senate has already expressed skepticism on at least one proposal to do so.

On Facebook, Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, said the Legislature should reconvene to consider House Bill 140, which passed the House but didn’t receive a hearing in the Senate’s Commerce and Human Resources Committee.

The legislation, introduced by Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, would prevent the state from contracting with any businesses that engages in “discrimination against unvaccinated persons,” including terminating or refusing to hire unvaccinated people, as well as reassigning or demoting employees who decline to get vaccinated. Read the bill here.

Both Giddings and Bedke are among the candidates running to be the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor in 2022.

In a Friday interview with Idaho Reports, Sen. Jim Patrick, R-Filer and chairman of the Senate Commerce and Human Resource Committee, said he didn’t like the wording of Giddings’ bill, as Idaho government entities do business with thousands of companies, and it would be nearly impossible to discern who has vaccine mandates. According to Patrick, the majority of his committee members weren’t fans of the bill, either.

“It would create a lot of chaos,” Patrick said, adding he doesn’t oppose hospitals mandating vaccines for employees. “The point was there’s other jobs if you don’t want to get vaccinated.”

Patrick did say he is open to a conversation about liability if an employee gets sick because of a vaccine. In his Facebook post, Nate urged employees who are compelled to get vaccinated to “get a guarantee from their employer that the employer will accept all liability for damages and harm coming from the vaccine they require.”

In a text message to Idaho Reports, Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder said Senate Republicans are planning a caucus meeting next Friday to discuss vaccinations, as well as whether they are willing to come back into session.

“We’re confident in the decision we’re making.”

Chris Roth, President and CEO, St. Luke’s Health System

St. Luke’s President and CEO Chris Roth said nearly 80 percent of St. Luke’s employees are already vaccinated, and with the uptick in cases nationwide related to the Delta variant, hospital leadership felt it was the right time to add the COVID vaccine to the list of required immunizations already in place for hospital employees.

Roth said despite pushback, “we’re confident in the decision we’re making.” In regards to the Legislature, “they are going to take their own actions going forward and we’ll continue to remain engaged with our local representatives,” Roth said.

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