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Alabama GOP advances bill for vaccine mandate exemptions

November 4, 2021 GMT

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama lawmakers on Wednesday advanced legislation aimed at limiting companies’ ability to fire workers who say they can’t get vaccinated against COVID-19 for religious or medical reasons.

The House Health Committee approved an amended version of the Senate-passed bill designed to shield workers facing federal vaccination mandates. It would create a standard process for workers to claim a religious or medical exemption and make a legal presumption that the employee is entitled to the exemption.

“People are in great fear of losing their jobs. I’m hearing it from my community, people who have worked at plants since the ’90s,” said Republican Rep. Mike Jones, who was shepherding the bill in the House.

The revised bill would mandate businesses requiring COVID-19 vaccinations to distribute a form where employees could claim a religious or medical exemption through a standardized state form. A company that wanted to fire the employee over vaccination status would have to appeal to the Alabama Department of Labor where an administrative law judge would make a determination as to whether the employee is entitled to the exemption. The judge’s decision could be appealed to circuit court.

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The legislation comes as Republican leaders in many states try to find ways to resist the federal vaccine mandate they call an infringement on personal liberties. The bill drew opposition from a business group who said it would put federal contractors in a no-win situation. And a Democratic committee member said it would jeopardize the health of other workers.

“Here we sit in the middle of one of the worst pandemics that I’ve ever had in my lifetime. We’re trying to protect the rights of those who are not complying but disregarding the rights of those who want to be safe,” Democratic Rep. Pebblin Warren said.

Alabama has seen at least 15,629 COVID-19 related deaths, and has the second-highest per capita death rate from COVID-19 among states, according to researchers from Johns Hopkins University.

One of the state’s largest business groups opposes the bill, saying it interferes with private business decisions and puts federal contractors in a difficult situation that could cost jobs.

Robin Stone of the Business Council of Alabama said it would cause confusion and “place Alabama employers in a no-win situation by forcing them to comply with conflicting code in the state legislation and existing federal orders.”

During debate Republican Rep. Joe Lovvorn of Auburn said he is opposed to vaccination mandates, but is concerned the state might be trying to fight a “huge overstep by the federal government” by “over-governing ourselves.”

Jones said he was trying to mediate changes to the bill to make it more palatable. He acknowledged it is a “carve-out” to existing state law that otherwise allows employers to fire workers at will.

The committee-passed bill had several changes, such as requiring the employee to provide relevant information about a conflicting health condition. It also said an administrative law judge would hear appeals. However, Jones said he thought most employers would just file the exemption away.

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The committee also approved a separate bill that gives the state attorney general authority to enforce the state’s existing vaccine passport law that prohibits businesses from refusing service to unvaccinated customers.

House Speaker Mac McCutcheon said he believes the bills have the support to win approval Thursday. He said in his tech-heavy district in north Alabama, there are thousands of workers at federal contractors upset about the vaccination mandate.

“They feel like the federal government has done an overreach . . . and tell them what they can and cannot do with their bodies. And because of that, the public outcry has just been enormous,” he said.

Warren said her colleagues pitch the bill as protecting the rights of people to make their own health decisions, but several years ago tried to take away the right of rape victims to get an abortion. Alabama lawmakers approved legislation banning almost all abortions but the law was blocked by a federal judge.

“It’s very confusing to me that we sat in this body and passed a bill that would not protect a female who was impregnated by rape, but we can sit here and have the rights of those who don’t want to keep themselves and other folks healthy,” Warren said.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.