The Iowa Legislature passed a bill Thursday to create exemptions to employer vaccine mandates. (Photo by Katie Akin/Iowa Capital Dispatch)
In a special session sprint, Iowa lawmakers passed a bill to create exceptions to employer vaccine mandates and to provide unemployment benefits for people fired for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine.
“We needed to find a way to protect Iowans’ individual rights without putting Iowa businesses between a rock and a hard place,” said Rep. Henry Stone, R-Estherville. “After months of hard work, careful consideration and input from Iowans, I believe we have found a meaningful solution.”
The legislation requires employers to waive COVID-19 vaccine requirements in two instances: If the employee had a religious reason not to be vaccinated, or if the vaccine would be “injurious to the health and well-being of the employee or an individual residing with the employee.”
Employees who are fired due to vaccination requirements will be eligible for unemployment benefits under the bill.
The House voted 67-27 in favor of the bill. The Senate voted 45-4 in favor.
Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls said many Democrats voted in favor of expanding the unemployment benefits, regardless of their feelings about the bill more broadly.
“Ultimately, I do think that making sure that Iowans have access to that lifeline if they find themselves in that situation is important,” Wahls, D-Coralville, said.
Despite the significant bipartisan support in both chambers, Democrats raised several concerns with the bill. Notably, the legislation does not require a health care professional to make the case for a medical waiver on behalf of the employee. Rep. Bruce Hunter, D-Des Moines, asked if someone could simply turn in a handwritten note that explains their personal objection to the COVID-19 vaccine.
“What you’re saying is that it’s not really a medical exemption and it’s not really a religious exemption,” Hunter said. “It’s just a personal exemption that ‘I don’t want to get this vaccine.’”
Stone responded that yes, employees could request their own exemption from a vaccine mandate without a doctor’s note.
“I believe Iowans are well aware of what can be injurious to their body,” Stone responded.
Some Democrats also noted that the bill had the potential to balloon the number of people receiving unemployment payments, potentially creating a costly situation for the state and employers. Stone said a fiscal analysis was not possible, because they could not know how many private employers would introduce a mandate or fire workers,
In the Senate, Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha, asked Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, how many people would become eligible for unemployment benefits under the legislation, and if he felt comfortable with potentially paying significantly more in unemployment insurance.
Schultz acknowledged that it made him “uneasy” to expand unemployment eligibility without a cost estimate, but he said it was necessary in the face of mandates.
“I don’t want to have to do this. Nobody does,” Schultz said. “We’re reacting to authoritarianism.”
Lawmakers intend to take further action on vaccine mandates when the session begins anew in January. In a committee meeting, Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, tasked Rep. Jon Jacobsen, R-Council Bluffs, with crafting more expansive legislation against vaccine mandates.
Stone noted that many employers set “fast-approaching deadlines” for employees to be vaccinated, leaving workers who refuse the shots teetering on the edge of unemployment.
“January will be too late for Iowans,” Stone said. “That’s why we needed to act today.”
Gov. Kim Reynolds said Thursday afternoon that she will sign the legislation into law.
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