Republican legislators are moving to punish businesses — and in a big way — if they force workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and any of them get sick.
Legislation awaiting a House vote effectively would require employers to honor each and every request for a religious exemption. That’s because anyone who suffers a “significant injury” from the vaccine would be entitled to at least $500,000.
And that doesn’t count punitive damages that a court could award.
Rep. Quang Nguyen, R-Prescott Valley, who pushed HB 2043 through the House Judiciary Committee this past week on a 6-5 party-line vote, said he deliberately designed the penalty to be so big that companies would think twice about denying a worker’s claim that getting injected with the vaccine violates his or her “sincerely held religious belief.”
“My religious freedom, religious liberty, has to be respected,” he said.
“You’re not going to tell me what goes in my body, what’s involved with my soul and who I worship,” Nguyen continued. “That’s nobody’s business.”
The proposal has caused some alarm in the business community which just last year convinced the Republican-controlled legislature to enact limits on the ability of people to sue businesses, including health care providers, for damages resulting from efforts to deal with the pandemic.
Courtney Coolidge, lobbyist for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, said the understanding was that anyone who got ill from a vaccine would be able to collect only through the state’s workers’ compensation system. That provides for payment of medical bills for any work-related injury or illness plus a percentage of lost wages.
“This bill before you today would undermine that system,” she told committee members hearing the measure.
But Donny Rodenkirk of Prescott said that ignores the kind of problems suffered by his wife, Mary Jane, after her employer — he did not name names — forced her to get the vaccine.
The first dose, he said, resulted in severe headaches and ringing in her ears. A second dose was no better.
“It only got worse,” he told lawmakers. “Worse headaches, worse ringing in the ears and she started having seizures.”
And now, Rodenkirk said, his wife is out of work.
“If they would have just honored her beliefs and convictions to not get it, and the hesitation there, we could have actually seen what hope looked like,” he said.
There also were those at the hearing who question the safety and efficacy of vaccines in the first place, like Barbara Jennings who called them “experimental drugs” and suggested lawmakers go to a web site where individuals can post their stories of side effects and deaths.
“We need accountability,” she said, saying that children “have no chance of dying” from the virus, “and most healthy people the same.”
“We now see that these jabs do not prevent COVID,” Jennings said.
Nguyen said the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control says that as of the end of last year there were a million reports of negative side effects.
“And those are the ones that are reported,” he said, with 110,000 hospitalizations and 21,000 deaths.
But a spokesman for the CDC provided different numbers, saying the unconfirmed tally of adverse effects reported to its Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System at the end of last year was 702,025. He also pegged hospitalizations over the same period at 46,696.
And while the agency’s web site listed 11,657 deaths reported to VAERS, Curtis Gill said the agency “has not detected any unusual or unexpected patterns for deaths following immunizations that would indicate that COVID vaccines are causing or contributing to deaths,” outside of nine confirmed cases related to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine linked to thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome, or TTS.
The agency also says that a report of an adverse effect following a vaccination “do not necessarily mean that a vaccine caused a health problem.”
Nguyen said the situation has to be seen through the eyes of someone who lost a family member.
“I am pro business,” he said. “But somebody has to be held liable for these injuries.”
Mike Huckins, lobbyist for the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce said the whole concept of the bill goes against the fact that Arizona is an “at-will” state. That means employers are free to fire workers for any reason at all as long as it does not violate public policy, such as discriminating on the basis of race.
But Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, said he sees it through a different lens.
“Do you think there is the moral obligation, not just legal, the moral obligation, to hold somebody’s employment hostage for them to stick something in their body?” he asked.
Huckins sidestepped the question.
“I understand there are moral issues some folks have,” he said.
“Other folks don’t have those moral issues or beliefs in the same manner as other folks do,” Huckins continued. “But that’s how we’re looking at it, from an employer rights issue.”
That response left Finchem unsatisfied.
“If someone is claiming a religious exemption, can they get steamrolled?” he asked. “The chamber doesn’t have a problem with that?”
Huckins said his organization understands there is a a religious exemption built into the law.
“If there is a legitimate exemption in that belief, employers should follow that,” he said.
“And what if they don’t?” Finchem continued.
Huckins said an employee who believes his or her right for a religious exemption has a right to seek legal relief.
Finchem said that’s still missing the point.
“Who in the blazes are you to tell me what my religious exemption is?” he asked.
“That’s untenable to me,” Finchem said. “What’s also untenable to me is that an individual would have to go to court to enforce their civil rights when their job is held hostage for something that is a civil right to say ‘No.’ ”
The legislation does not spell out what is considered a “significant injury.”
But Nguyen said it would be based on standards from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. And OSHA says that ranges from death and days away from work, to restricted work or job transfer and medical treatment beyond first aid.