An Indiana Senate panel on Wednesday endorsed rolling back a proposal that aimed to severely limit workplace COVID-19 vaccine requirements, setting up potentially weeks of negotiations with House members on how far the Republican-led Legislature will go toward inserting itself on the issue.
Changes to the bill approved by the Senate’s health committee require businesses to grant medical vaccine exemptions to workers along with religious exemptions as required by federal law. The version approved by the House last month would force businesses to give requested religious exemptions “without further inquiry.”
Opponents of vaccine requirements lined up against the Senate’s proposal, arguing that federal laws have been inadequate in protecting the rights of people to make their own health care decisions.
Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb and GOP Senate leaders have sided with major business groups opposing the House-backed vaccine mandate limitations as wrongly interfering in business decisions.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Messmer cited concerns about his family’s plumbing and heating business in Jasper meeting President Joe Biden’s proposed federal vaccine mandates and that employers should have broad flexibility on such workplace policies.
“There’s not a huge rush of employers looking to fire employees in this state because unemployment is low, availability of workers is hard to find and nobody would choose to do that as a means of doing business,” Messmer said.
House Republicans unsuccessfully first tried to push through the limits on workplace vaccine policies in November, when the state was in the midst of a steep increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths that peaked in mid-January.
That surge threatened to overwhelm Indiana hospitals as the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 reached about 3,500, a number that has dropped by more than half to about 1,500 people as of Tuesday, according to state health department tracking. Indiana’s rate of COVID-19 deaths is now about 35 a day, down from about 75 a day about a month ago.
The Senate committee kept provisions in the bill requiring employers to accept as a vaccine exemption a worker’s medical test results showing some level of “natural immunity” through a previous infection, but would allow businesses to require such tests every three months instead of six.
The Senate revisions would allow businesses to require COVID-19 testing twice a week of employees granted vaccine exemptions, while the House version limited that to no more than once a week.
Another change removed House provisions specifying that anyone fired for not getting a COVID-19 vaccination was eligible for unemployment benefits. Messmer said such workers could still be eligible for jobless benefits if they demonstrate to the Department of Workforce Development that the business didn’t provide sufficient workplace accommodations.
Leah Wilson, leader of the group Stand for Health Freedom, said the Senate changes weren’t sufficient to protect people threatened with losing their jobs because they wouldn’t get the vaccination shots.
Wilson argued that lawmakers should “protect one of the most sacred rights of Hoosiers, which is bodily autonomy,” and that it was wrong to rely on what she called “grossly inadequate” federal law protections.
Several opponents cited instances of nurses and other hospital workers losing jobs because they wouldn’t comply with the hospital vaccine mandates, but Messmer said the state Legislature can’t overturn those requirements as they’ve been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The committee’s action sends the bill to the full Senate, which could vote on it as soon as next week. That would then lead to negotiations on a final version ahead of the mid-March deadline for wrapping up this year’s legislative session.
Republican House Majority Leader Matt Lehman of Berne said he hoped to reach an agreement that protects workers from losing their jobs.
“We’ll take a look at it when it comes back to the House and see where we can find a good place to land,” Lehman said.