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New Iowa law on vaccines frustrates businesses

New Iowa law on vaccines frustrates businesses

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New Iowa law on vaccines frustrates businesses

‘They’re trying to fix a mandate with a mandate,’ one leader says

DES MOINES — Iowa business leaders are concerned that expanding exemptions from workplace COVID-19 vaccination requirements — and protecting jobless benefits for those who refuse to follow a mandate — may result in unintended consequences or added costs related to the surprise changes enacted by the Iowa Legislature and signed into law Friday by Gov. Kim Reynolds.

The swift arrival of House File 902 and its passage during Thursday’s one-day special legislative session added to the frustration and confusion that Iowa employers already were facing due to vaccination mandates that now are in conflict with the new state requirement that they exempt employees who claim a medical or religious exemption.

Mike Ralston, president of the Iowa Association of Business & Industry, said his organization’s more than 1,500 member companies representing 330,000 working Iowans have had a mixed response with some instituting vaccine mandates for their employees and others opposed — but most feeling whipsawed by conflicting state and federal approaches that restrict their flexibility in dealing with different circumstances and get in the way of businesses trying to operate as they think is best for their employees.

“We’re disappointed by the bill, and I’m not sure ‘disappointed’ is strong enough,” said Ralston of the legislation that became law in about 24 hours.

“They’re trying to fix a mandate with a mandate,” he noted. “What they did that is really frustrating is they said that somebody can decide not to get vaccinated and quit their job and get unemployment. That money is provided by employers. It’s frustrating that this is sort of a social, political policy that they’re saying can be fixed by the unemployment trust fund and that’s problematic, too. It’s more of a political issue than an unemployment issue.”

While disagreeing with the Biden administration's plan to mandate vaccines or testing, business organizations in Iowa say Iowa’s new law puts employers at risk of facing federal penalties for not complying with a federal mandate, potentially exacerbates an already tight job market with an incentive not to work and could cost businesses more if a large number of employees end up qualifying for a jobless benefit that did not exist before.

“Overall, we need to do be doing everything we can to encourage people to stay within the workforce,” said Joe Murphy of the Iowa Business Council. “While we understand what they’re trying to do, it does begin to create some confusion between all the rules and regulations that businesses then are expected to abide by. And when some of those rules and regulations are contradictory, that puts businesses in a difficult position. We’re still evaluating the total effect of this. It’s law now so we’ll move forward the best way possible.”

Reynolds, who signed the bill into law Friday effective immediately, called it a first step but “a major step forward in protecting Iowans’ freedoms and their abilities to make health care decisions based on what’s best for themselves and their families. This legislation also gives employees the assurance that they will still receive unemployment benefits despite being fired for standing up for their beliefs.”

The GOP governor took the action on the same day that Iowa joined nine other states in a lawsuit challenging President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate for all workers employed by a federal contractor, which is one-fifth of the nation’s workforce.

“As I’ve stated publicly numerous times, I believe the vaccine is the best defense against COVID-19 and we’ve provided Iowans with the information they need to determine what’s best for themselves and their families, but no Iowan should be forced to lose their job or livelihood over the COVID-19 vaccine,” the governor said in a statement.

Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, said legislators learned from an anti-mask mandate they enacted for Iowa schools — which was halted for now by a federal judge — to take a different tact with a “wide-open” forced-acceptance waiver that would have the effect of allowing “freedom-loving Iowans to tell the Biden administration to get off their backs.” He said the bill “is a partial answer” that says in cases where the federal government doesn’t specifically exclude waivers or exemptions, state law can apply.

Critics of the bill, which passed the House 68-27 and the Senate 45-4, said it will not protect the jobs of Iowans fired for refusing to comply with COVID-19 vaccination requirements and ultimately could place a financial burden on businesses that will pay the cost of the state changes.

“It seems to us that the new law is a leap in the dark for employer liability to the trust fund,” said Ralston. “Should a federal mandate prove more onerous than compliance with the new state mandate, the effect could be huge. Yesterday the Legislature monetized the cost of Iowans choosing not to be vaccinated and placed that cost on business.”

Sen. Jim Carlin, a Sioux City Republican who is seeking the 2022 GOP nomination to the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Sen. Chuck Grassley, said the federal government has put Iowans in a “no-win situation” by threatening they will lose their jobs if they refuse to comply with a COVID-19 vaccination mandate, but now HF 902 has given them some options in dealing with concerns they have raised.

“They have no choice, no self-determination and until the Biden administration has to guts to make this law so the state of Iowa can challenge it in court, we’re in limbo. We’re stuck and they have no place to go,” Carlin said. “This gives our people some options and a fallback position.”

Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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