By Ruth Brown, Idaho Reports
On Monday, the House Business Committee heard eight bills during the extraordinarily long 2021 Legislative session, all of which focused on vaccines.
The bills were introduced during a 7:30 am meeting, and landed in committee at 1:30 pm. Several people offering testimony commented on the lack of time available to read the legislation before the bill hearings.
In total, the meeting took more than five hours to complete, and resulted in three bills heading to the House for a vote. The committee also sent four bills for amendments, and held one.
Over the course of the five hour meeting, committee members heard from members of the public who expressed frustration with the federal government, as well as mandatory vaccinations for employment. A few shared personal stories of losing their jobs because they refused to get vaccinated and tested.
Some testimony Monday included false information about the COVID-19 vaccines. Vaccines do not modify human DNA, the vaccine is not being put in food, and COVID-19 vaccines have been proven to be extremely effective. Other testimony stressed that employers should honor religious exemptions for unvaccinated employees.
Rep. Charlie Shepard, R-Pollock, pitched HB410, which would make it unlawful for employers to take vaccination status into consideration when considering hiring or firing an employee. The bill, deemed the Employee Medical Information Protection Act, would apply to all vaccinations, not just COVID-19.
“We have to give the employee a chance to do their job without having to violate their personal body,” said Shepard.
Shepard also said he doesn’t understand why unvaccinated people are a danger to vaccinated people, unless the vaccine doesn’t work.
“If it did work, then why is the person not vaccinated a danger,” Shepard said.
Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise, said Shepard’s view was only taking into consideration two people. He said it’s possible for the virus to be carried by a vaccinated person, especially as a virus mutates.
“Would you not agree that it would create a risk?” Berch asked.
“What I heard from you is the vaccine doesn’t work,” Shepard said.
Some of the employers currently requiring vaccinations include hospitals, where health care workers interact with high risk patients, as well as pediatric patients who are too young to get the vaccine.
Shepard said he was most concerned about government interference with businesses.
“The Biden administration is interfering with private businesses and we’ve gotta fight fire with fire,” he said.
HB 413 would require employers to provide written notice of any required vaccinations as a condition of hiring. But, if a new vaccination is created, the employees don’t have to take the vaccine. The employee may not be terminated nor face discrimination if an employee who refuses to take the new vaccine. If an employer violates the law, it could be punishable by a misdemeanor crime.
Rep. Doug Okuniewicz, R-Hayden, sponsored the bill, telling the committee that the attorney general’s office believes the bill is constitutional.
Lynn Laird, of Meridian, testified in opposition to the bill, saying it only protects currently employed people. Those who are job seeking would not be protected from vaccination requirements.
“I have jurisdiction over my own body, as you do yours,” she said. “(This bill) codifies discrimination.”
The committee ultimately held the bill at his request.
Rep. Gayann DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, proposed HB 415, which would include exemptions for pregnant people, religious or “other” grounds, or a documented antibody screen for “natural immunity.” “Other” would include personal and philosophical beliefs. HB 415 would also require employers to inform employees of the exemptions.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the vaccine is safe for pregnant women. Pregnant and recently pregnant people are also more likely to get severely ill with COVID-19 compared with non-pregnant people, according to the CDC.
“We must protect individual Idahoans’ rights, and a ban on vaccine mandates does that,” DeMordaunt said.
DeMordaunt also sponsored HB 416, which would prohibit any licensing board from revoking or denying the renewal of any license based on the applicant’s vaccination status.
Rep. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene, pitched HB 419, which he called a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The bill would prohibit any person, entity or business entity from asking if a person is vaccinated for COVID-19. If an employer asks, the employee is not compelled to answer.
Rep. Jason Monks, R-Meridian, sponsored HB 421, which would prohibit state entities from denying employment or services to people based on their vaccination status.
Monk offered the example of a football game, saying Idaho universities could not require vaccinations of attendees at state facilities.
The bill would apply to all vaccines, not just the COVID-19 vaccines.
Monks said HB 422, similar to HB 413, would prohibit existing employers from mandating employees get vaccinated. Employers could, however, notify potential new employees that immunizations would be required. The bill would also prohibit employers from discriminating against the unvaccinated employees.
Monks said HB 422 is trying to balance the rights of employers and employees.
“For businesses to make this rash decision now (to mandate it) is irresponsible,” Monks said about the COVID-19 vaccine.
The third bill Monks proposed involved employee rights. Under HB 427, no employee would be required to disclose medical information to an employer unless it is essential to their duties. At the time of hiring, the employer must identify what type of medical information they would request.
Berch noted the bill doesn’t specify vaccines, though. It calls it “medical information,” which could include a variety of conditions.
The only person to testify in opposition to the COVID vaccine bills was Taylor Jepson. Jepson urged lawmakers to take time to research the issue before passing legislation.
“You can’t legislate based solely on conjecture,” Jepson said.
She told lawmakers she had concern that because the bills are being drafted in haste, they hadn’t considered the long-term impact on all Idahoans.
“We shouldn’t be betting (the public’s) lives and livelihood on the testimony of a few people that may be coincidental or data that is unreliable,” she said.
Ultimately, the committee sent HB 419 and HB 421 to the House with a do-pass recommendation. They sent HB 415 to the House without a recommendation. HB 410, 416, 422, and 427 will be sent to general orders for amendment. HB 413 was held in committee.
The House convenes at 8 a.m. Tuesday.
Here is the schedule for the remaining pieces of legislation. You can watch hearings online through Idaho In Session.