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COVID-19 vaccine mandate ban legislation clears first hurdle, adds unemployment benefits

matt lehman

(Lauren Chapman/IPB News)

A bill to effectively ban private companies from enforcing COVID-19 vaccine mandates cleared its first hurdle at the Statehouse Thursday.

The measure – HB 1001, House Republicans’ top priority this session – passed a House committee.

The panel first made a few changes. The bill allows businesses to require weekly COVID-19 testing for employees who refuse to get the vaccine. And it says those businesses can’t charge their employees for the tests.

Now, bill author Rep. Matt Lehman (R-Berne) said companies can get reimbursed by the state for those supplies.

“Then you can apply to [Department of Workforce Development] for reimbursement paid out of any state or federal funds that go towards COVID,” Lehman said.

READ MORE: Hoosiers rail against proposed employer vaccine mandate bill from multiple fronts

That was a sticking point for some business. But every major health care and business organization in the state still opposes the overall bill.

Lehman said his measure is trying to walk a fine line.

“That place between an employer's right to do what employers have a right to do as private enterprise, at the same time not interfering with the firmly held beliefs or the medical conditions of their employees,” Lehman said.

The fast-spreading omicron variant has pushed Indiana’s number of confirmed COVID-19 infections to an average of more than 9,000 a day, according to state Health Department tracking. That is the highest level during the pandemic as Indiana’s hospitals were treating nearly 3,300 COVID-19 patients as of Tuesday — a number that is up about 170% from two months ago and the highest since mid-December 2020 before the vaccines were widely available.

Indiana’s vaccination rate has stagnated for months despite pleas from Holcomb and medical groups for more people to get the shots. Indiana has the country’s ninth lowest rate for a fully vaccinated population at 52.1%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Republican House Speaker Todd Huston said people need to take responsibility for protecting themselves against COVID-19 and that he didn’t believe businesses could rely on vaccinations to prevent spread among their employees.

“I think what we now have seen is that there was a belief that if we all got vaccinated, we could stop the spread, right? And we aren’t stopping the spread,” Huston said. “Vaccination protects me. It protects me. It doesn’t mean that I can’t give it to you.”

Lawmakers also added language to make unemployment benefits available for workers who are fired for applying for a vaccine exemption under the proposed rules and get fired instead. It's meant to act as a punishment for employers who don't comply by raising their contributions to the state's unemployment insurance trust fund.

The Department of Workforce Development said, currently, workers can’t claim unemployment benefits if the employer has a "reasonable" vaccination policy. 

Rep. Dan Leonard (R-Huntington) has worked on unemployment insurance legislation for years and opposed the new language in the committee. Without saying if he believes workers should be eligible for benefits, he argued unemployment isn't the best system to use for a penalty because each employer pays into it differently. 

“I’d like to see the unemployment portion taken out and come up with a different system if we’re going to penalize employers,” Leonard said. “We’re going to penalize some employers a lot more than we penalize [other] employers depending on their status with the unemployment system.”

There’s also an entirely separate part of the bill that aims to help Gov. Eric Holcomb end the public health emergency. Holcomb requested a few changes to state law that will ensure Indiana can continue running COVID-10 clinics and won’t lose millions in federal funding tied to the pandemic.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Contact reporter Brandon at bsmith@ipbs.org or follow him on Twitter at @brandonjsmith5. Contact reporter Justin at jhicks@wvpe.org or follow him on Twitter at @Hicks_JustinM.

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