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Opposition Mounts To COVID Vaccine Exemption Bill

Photo Courtesy/WV Legislative Photography House Majority Leader Amy Summers, right, said a bill being considered by lawmakers provides needed clarity on religious and medical exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

CHARLESTON — Opposition is building to a last-minute addition of a bill to the special session call by Gov. Jim Justice for COVID-19 vaccine exemptions.

Senate Bill 3035 and House Bill 335 were moved to third reading Thursday and will be up for passage later today. Both bills relate to COVID-19 immunization requirements for employment in the public and private sectors.

Justice amended the special session call late Tuesday night, adding the exemption bill and two other bills. If passed by lawmakers, the legislation would allow for medical and religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates put in place by employers.

Public and private sector employees would have to provide employers a certificate signed by a licensed physician or advanced practical registered nurse either showing that a medical issue prevents vaccination, or the employee has antibodies from a previous COVID-19 infection. Employees seeking a religious exemption would have to show a notarized certificate to the employer stating that the employee or new hire has religious beliefs that prevent them from taking the vaccine.

House Majority Leader Amy Summers, R-Taylor, is the lead sponsor of the House version of the bill. Summers said the bill is meant to mirror exemptions already offered by some business and the U.S. Armed Forces.

The bill is also a response to President Joe Biden’s executive order last month requiring all federal employees, private contractors to federal agencies, and businesses with more than 100 employees to be vaccinated for COVID-19. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration submitted its proposed rule Tuesday for the private sector vaccination requirement to the Office of Management and Budget for review.

“This bill is needed now because we have people that in less than 20 days, they’re going to lose their jobs unless they’re afforded an opportunity to have an exemption,” Summers said. “We’ve been kind of watching this process and we saw that businesses were offering exemptions and we were pleased with that. But then all these people are calling us saying all my exemptions were denied.”

The bill was taken up by the state Senate quickly without being referred to a committee. The House Government Organization Committee recommended their version of the bill for passage Wednesday. An attempt to move the bill to the House Health and Human Resources Committee by House Democratic lawmakers failed. Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, the minority chairman of the House Health Committee, said the federal government could withhold tax dollars from the state if the bill is passed.

“No matter how you feel about the bill, I think that everybody could agree that this is a health issue,” Pushkin said. “It should go through the Committee on Health and Human Resources. All we were asking for is to properly vet the bill. The way it’s written right now, it’s fairly broad and it costs the state a whole lot of federal dollars. That’s a problem.”

Several members of the House Democratic Caucus held a press conference Thursday morning decrying the bill. Del. Joey Garcia, D-Marion, said the caucus isn’t against exemptions but the bill from Justice is too broad.

“There are already federal exemptions that are available that provide the employer with the ability to not just take an employee’s word for it, but to have objective criteria in trying to say ‘do we grant an exemption or not,'” Garcia said. “This really takes that right away from the employer and at a time when we’re all trying to fight against COVID and trying to make this as short as a pandemic as possible, this is really a situation where it’s getting railroaded.”

Business and healthcare groups came out against the bill. In a joint statement released Wednesday evening, the West Virginia Business and Industry Council, the West Virginia Hospital Association, the West Virginia State Medical Association, and the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce asked the Legislature to wait before passing the bill.

“At this time of great uncertainty for the businesses our organizations represent, we urge the Legislature to postpone action on HB 335 until we have the opportunity to fully review and discuss the ramifications of this bill and what transpires on the federal level,” the organizations stated. “State legislative action will create a patchwork of rules and regulations for West Virginia businesses and health care organizations who will be forced to navigate between federal policy and conflicting state law.”

Summers said lawmakers would be prepared to come back to Charleston to make changes to the bill depending on what the OSHA COVID-19 mandate rule looks like.

“We will come back and tweak it,” Summers said. “If there’s a conflict between what they put out and what we’ve done, we will absolutely correct that or make those changes just like we do any other time.”

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