House Committee clears bill to curb private employer rights

The state House Commerce Committee on Tuesday passed a bill that would clear the way for employees terminated because of vaccination requirements to get significant severance compensation. 

House Bill 2198, sponsored by Rep. Steve Kaiser, R-Phoenix, would codify into law penalties for employers that require vaccination against Covid-19 as a condition of employment. 

After its implementation was blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court last month, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration withdrew its proposed mandate that employers with more than 100 employees require their workers to be vaccinated or subject to regular testing. 

Some industries, however, still remain subject to federal vaccination requirements, such as healthcare providers that receive federal funding. 

The bill proposes that any employee who is terminated from a position for not receiving the Covid-19 vaccine “must receive either severance compensation paid by an employer in the amount of the employee’s annual salary in one lump sum or installment payments over 12 months, or reemployment with the employer at the same or similar position held on the date the employee was terminated.”

Business community opponents of the bill included the Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry.

“Workplace environments vary significantly, and private businesses have the ability to best serve the needs of their employees and implement policies for their operations,” said Courtney Coolidge, Chamber vice president of government affairs. “Additionally, employers that strive to follow the law and public health guidance should not be faced with costly mandates from the government requiring massive severance compensation.”

Mike Huckins of the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce agreed with Coolidge, saying, “This bill doesn’t differentiate between healthcare industry employers and regular businesses.”

Kaiser, however, disagreed. 

“We do have the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which specifically says that you cannot discriminate against employees,” he said. “This is basic discrimination at it’s finest.” 

Kaiser did not indicate why existing federal law is inadequate.

Discussion about the bill during the hearing by lawmakers referenced religious exemptions and employers denying them, but the bill does not mention religious exemptions, a point Rep. Sarah Liguori, D-Phoenix, sought to clarify.

“You mentioned religion, but you didn’t specifically mention religion in [this bill],” she said. “It’s not specific to religious mandates, correct?”

“It’s for wrongful termination for not accepting the vaccine,” Kaiser said. “The wrongful termination could be a religious exemption. All of the mandates had an exemption process. These accommodations were not given to these people.” 

The bill as drafted, however, applies broadly to any separation from employment, not just wrongful termination. 

Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, voted “present” and cited the peculiarity of Republican lawmakers backing legislation that seeks stiff penalties against private sector employers. 

“I think that sometimes we forget what side of the aisle we are on when it comes to these mandates,” Cook said. 

Organizations opposing the bill represent the entire political spectrum from left to right, including the Arizona State AFL-CIO, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, Health Systems Alliance of Arizona, the Arizona Free Enterprise Club, and local chambers of commerce. 

Taylor Hersch

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