Arkansas lawmakers on Friday rejected legislation preventing businesses from requiring employees to say whether they’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19, after the House speaker and business groups said it would have devastating consequences.
The majority-Republican House voted 41-46 in favor of the Senate-backed bill, which would have created a “right of privacy” for employees and contractors regarding their vaccination status. The proposal would allow employees to sue under the state’s civil rights law for any violations.
The measure was rejected shortly before lawmakers wrapped up a session that was intended to focus on congressional redistricting but instead had been dominated by attempts to limit or prohibit vaccine requirements. The proposals have primarily been in response to President Joe Biden’s order that businesses with more than 100 employees must require vaccinations or weekly testing.
“What this tool does is allows the state to push back on the mandates that are coming,” Republican Rep. Josh Bryant said.
But it faced opposition from business groups and hospitals, as well as GOP legislative leaders who said it went too far in restricting businesses..
“One overreach by the state does not eliminate the overreach by the federal government, and this is an overreach,” House Speaker Matthew Shepherd told House members before the vote.
Opponents said the proposal would force businesses to choose between exposing themselves to lawsuits by workers or face federal fines for not complying with Biden’s order.
They also said it would have jeopardized Medicaid and Medicare funding for health care facilities throughout the state, and stop those facilities from preventing infections and contact tracing. The legislation would have even prevented someone from requiring a home health care worker to disclose whether they’re vaccinated.
Critics also said the measure would expose businesses across the state to lawsuits.
“This bill is going to be a bonanza for trial lawyers,” Republican Rep. David Ray said.
The bill drew opposition from the state’s economic development officials, who said it would hurt efforts to attract businesses to the state and would put companies’ contracts with the federal government at risk.
“It was a bad bill and the House wisely killed it,” Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a statement.
Ray and other opponents also said the bill would have conflicted with another measure the Legislature approved this week that requires employers to allow workers to opt out of vaccine requirements if they test weekly or prove they have antibodies against COVID-19.
Health officials have said antibody testing should not be used to assess immunity against the coronavirus, and that people who have recovered from COVID-19 should still get vaccinated.
Hutchinson has not said whether he plans to sign that bill, though he has expressed concerns about its impact. Hutchinson has five days after the bill reaches his desk to sign or veto it before it becomes law without his signature. It takes a simple majority for the Legislature to override a governor’s veto in Arkansas.
If enacted, that proposal won’t take effect until early next year.
It’s possible lawmakers could face even more attempts to restrict vaccine requirements when they return to the Capitol for a special session Hutchinson plans to call the week of Oct. 25 to take up his proposed income tax cuts. Those proposals, however, would require at least a two-thirds vote to be considered after lawmakers finish their agenda.
The author of the vaccine disclosure ban didn’t rule out trying again then.
“There’s no bigger issue that my constituents face than this,” Republican Sen. Bob Ballinger said after the vote.