CASPER – A bill that forbids employers from requiring staff to show proof of vaccination in most cases gained near-unanimous support from a Wyoming legislative committee Thursday.
The bill, now sponsored by the Legislature’s Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Committee, has three primary actions:
Committee Co-chair Sue Wilson, R-Cheyenne, authored the bill and explained the initial goal was to have something prepared for the anticipated special session previously scheduled for July. That session has now been called off , so it’s unlikely lawmakers will have an opportunity to act on the issue until the next legislative session in February 2022.
Wilson added she didn’t think this was an issue in Wyoming right now, but said, “I think there’s a real advantage to the committee taking some action on this before it becomes a problem.”
Twelve of the committee’s 14 members voted to support the bill at an upcoming session. One member was absent Thursday, and Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, was the sole “no” vote.
The intent of the bill is to assuage concerns about “vaccine passports” and other mandates while still creating an avenue for employers to impose some limits on staff who choose not to be immunized against any number of diseases.
Gov. Mark Gordon in May issued an executive order forbidding state agencies and other government facilities from enacting “vaccine passports.” But the state is limited in what it can require of businesses or forbid them from doing.
Federal public health, anti-discrimination and equal employment laws supersede state statutes, though federal regulators have punted the specific issue of COVID-19 vaccine requirements to the local level.
“The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not mandate vaccination. However, whether a state, local government, or employer, for example, may require or mandate COVID-19 vaccination is a matter of state or other applicable law,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.
Among those “other applicable” laws is the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is referenced in Wilson’s draft. The law requires that employers provide “reasonable accommodations” for employees with disabilities.
Wilson’s draft extends the obligation to provide “reasonable accommodations” to unvaccinated residents who are either applying to work at a company that otherwise requires vaccinations, or for members of the public hoping to access an “essential service.”
For example, if an unvaccinated resident wanted to go grocery shopping at a store that required customers to be immunized, that store would be obligated to provide a “reasonable accommodation” for that shopper.
The bill would also protect an unvaccinated person seeking work at a company that otherwise requires immunization.
In that instance, the employer would not be allowed to deny a person work because he was unvaccinated. If the company did not want that person interacting with the rest of the staff, it would be required to “reasonably” accommodate the individual.
An unvaccinated person with no disability would not be covered by the provisions in the ADA, but the committee bill would extend the use of “reasonable accommodation” to most residents in these situations.
A staff comment on the draft, however, suggests that the ADA actually allows for vaccine requirements in the workplace.
“Under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, an employer may have a workplace policy that includes ‘a requirement that an individual shall not pose a direct threat to the health or safety of individuals in the workplace.’ This policy may include a vaccination requirement,” the comment reads.
Connolly, the bill’s sole opponent, took issue with who would be receiving the accommodations.
“I understand there’s an attempt to balance the employer with an employee who does not want to be vaccinated, but what about those other workers who want to work in a safe environment?” Connolly asked.
Wilson rebuffed the question, saying if someone was vaccinated they shouldn’t be worried about personal risk. Vaccinated individuals may still be able to carry and spread the virus, though the risk is much lower than for the uninoculated, according to the CDC. While the vaccines have been proven safe and effective at preventing COVID-19 related hospitalizations and deaths, not everyone is able to get one. Some people are allergic, and others are unable to take the vaccine for other health reasons.
In addition to regulating businesses, the bill also gives K-12 students new grounds to request vaccination waivers.
State statute requires all students in K-12 public or private schools to show proof that they’ve been immunized against certain diseases. A student can currently request a waiver to this requirement on religious grounds, and the county or state health officer must approve those waivers.
The bill would allow students to request those waivers based on either a religious or “personal objection.”
It does, however, allow for county or state health officers to remove students with those waivers from school in the case of an outbreak of a disease for which the student is not vaccinated.
The legislation still needs approval from both legislative chambers and the governor, which likely won’t be possible until February.