Indiana House passes bill restricting employer vaccine mandates despite COVID-19 surge

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House lawmakers approved a bill by a 58-35 vote Tuesday that would gut most Indiana private vaccine mandates, striking a major blow to the usually influential business community amid a surge of COVID-19 cases.

Eight Republicans joined Democrats in voting against the bill.

The vote comes days after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Biden administration doesn't have the authority to impose a vaccine mandate on private businesses, leaving the decision of how to address most vaccine mandates up to individual states, such as Indiana.

The Senate, which has been more hesitant to restrict vaccine mandates, will now consider the bill.

Statehouse roundup: What you should know about the Indiana General Assembly session so far

What's in House Bill 1001?

Under House Bill 1001, private businesses that have COVID-19 vaccine mandates must grant employees exemptions for medical or religious reasons.

Furthermore employers would be required to give employees the choice to get tested weekly for free instead of vaccinated and businesses would have to allow exemptions for those employees who have "natural immunity" from previously contracting COVID-19.

Hoosiers who are discharged after unsuccessfully trying to seek an exemption wouldn't be disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits. However, the bill was amended since it left a House committee and no longer uses the state's unemployment system as a form of punishment for businesses that don't comply with the law.

Still the Indiana Chamber of Commerce argues the bill would make any vaccine mandates unfeasible. Likewise, opponents worried the bill would send the wrong message.

Majority Floor Leader Rep. Matt Lehman listens as the Indiana House meets, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021, in its temporary chamber at the Government Center South in Indianapolis.
Majority Floor Leader Rep. Matt Lehman listens as the Indiana House meets, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021, in its temporary chamber at the Government Center South in Indianapolis.

Rights of employees vs. employers

Bill author Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, said lawmakers tried to balance the rights of an employee and those of an employer. During two previous committee hearings on the topic, some Hoosiers told stories of losing their jobs because they refused to get vaccinated.

"This bill needs to be about protecting Hoosier workers. It's not about the vaccines," Lehman said. "It's not about the effectiveness. It’s about the people who are affected."

Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, argued on the floor Tuesday that lawmakers shouldn't be making policy based off "anecdotes and anger," and that the bill won't help Indiana increase the number of Hoosiers that get vaccinated.

"This bill sets a horrible example of civic non responsibility and tells our children that if you don’t like it, you don’t have to do it and the state will back you up," DeLaney said. "It teaches indifference."

State Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, speaks during a vote by the Indiana House representatives on the redistricting maps  Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021, at the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis.
State Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, speaks during a vote by the Indiana House representatives on the redistricting maps Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021, at the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis.

The debate on the topic Tuesday covered much more than just the rights of employers, as Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour and Rep. John Jacob, R-Indianapolis, questioned the effectiveness of the vaccine and preached that health care providers should look at ivermectin instead, a drug that is not approved or authorized by the Food and Drug Administration for COVID-19 treatment.

The bill doesn't go far enough, they said, to protect "bodily autonomy."

Indiana breaks record for daily new COVID cases

The vote restricting private vaccine mandates comes less than a week after Indiana broke its record for new daily COVID-19 cases as the omicron variant has swept through the state.

The majority of people who previously testified on the bill that they lost their jobs due to vaccine mandates hailed from the health care industry. But many of those Hoosiers would not be able to take advantage of many portions of this bill, because federal rules supersede state law.

Employees at health care facilities that receive federal funding through Medicare and Medicaid wouldn't qualify for all of the exemptions listed in House Bill 1001, because the Supreme Court permitted a federal vaccine mandate for those employees to remain intact on the same day that they rejected a mandate for other private employers.

More: Find out what's in controversial education bills, read full text

The bill also makes changes to state law requested by Gov. Eric Holcomb in order to enable him to end the state of emergency in Indiana, while still allowing for children to get the COVID-19 vaccine outside of a doctor's office and enabling the state to qualify for certain federal funds.

Holcomb has said he is opposed to the government getting involved with private business decisions about the vaccine, but hasn't said if he'll veto the bill if it arrives at his desk.

Call IndyStar reporter Kaitlin Lange at 317-432-9270. Follow her on Twitter: @kaitlin_lange.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Indiana vaccine mandate bill: House passes, Senate will consider

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