Rep. Jon Jacobsen and members of a task force speak during a State Capitol news conference Jan. 4, 2022, about a bill they have proposed to prohibit employer vaccine mandates in Iowa. (Photo by Katie Akin/Iowa Capital Dispatch)
State Rep. Jon Jacobsen paced, microphone in hand, around a table of anti-mandate organizers, as he unveiled a proposal to prohibit Iowa businesses from requiring employees to be vaccinated or wear masks.
“I can’t think of a greater civil rights issue than this,” Jacobsen said, comparing mandatory employer vaccinations to “an indentured servant-slash-slave relationship.”
If passed, the bill would prohibit businesses, including health care facilities, from asking employees to disclose their vaccination status. Businesses could not require employees or customers to wear face coverings, and they could not deny employment or service based on a person’s vaccination status.
If an employer violated the bill and required vaccinations, they would be liable “for any adverse reactions, injuries, disabilities or death” that resulted from the requirement. The business would also lose state licenses or permits.
The bill encompasses all vaccines, not just those against COVID-19. Schools would still be allowed to require vaccination and keep information on students’ medical histories.
It’s unclear how much support the bill has within the Republican majority. Party leadership on Tuesday encouraged legislators to wait until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on federal vaccine mandates before enacting new state policy.
“I look for (the Supreme Court) and I anticipate that they would put forward their ruling in a timely manner,” Gov. Kim Reynolds told reporters. “They understand the confusion that this has caused, the back and forth in the courts.”
Jacobsen, R-Council Bluffs, was nonetheless optimistic about the bill, noting that the Supreme Court would begin hearing arguments on federal vaccine mandates on Friday.
“The Venn diagrams are intersecting perfectly, I think, for us to take this up at the precise time that the Supreme Court is deliberating on this,” he said.
The legislative session begins Jan. 10.
How did we get here?
Iowa lawmakers convened in late October for a special session on redistricting. That day, they passed a law requiring businesses to accept broad exemptions to vaccine mandates, and allowing people fired for refusing the vaccine to collect unemployment.
Anti-mandate protesters said at the time the law didn’t go far enough to protect unvaccinated Iowans. Some Republican lawmakers, including Jacobsen, agreed.
Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, chair of the House State Government Committee, appointed Jacobsen to create a task force and write the next iteration of an employer vaccine mandate bill – a more comprehensive version than the bill passed during the one-day special session.
The task force included Rep. Mark Cisneros, R-Muscatine, and members from several groups organizing against the vaccine mandate. Leading Tuesday’s meeting were three representatives from Informed Choice Iowa, an anti-mandate group that led protests at the Capitol and across the state.
“This bill is not a ‘feel good’ bill, but a bill to truly protect the rights of Iowans and to hold those accountable who seek to violate those rights,” said Kathryn Kueter, a legislative liaison for Informed Choice Iowa.
Bill leaders compared the new proposal to a Montana law, passed in the spring of 2021. That law prohibits discrimination based on vaccine status. That Daily Montanan reported the Montana law was, by most accounts, the most restrictive law against vaccine mandates in the U.S.
But the proposal in Iowa would go a step further. Montana’s law allows mask mandates and incentives to receive the vaccine. The proposed Iowa bill would prohibit both things.
Plus, the Montana law explicitly allows health care facilities to follow federal guidance on employee vaccines, whereas the Iowa law does not provide exemptions for health care or address the discrepancy between state and federal law.
The bill has a long way to go before it reaches Reynolds’ desk, but Jacobsen said he observed lawmakers becoming more engaged in the issue in recent months.
“People see the light when they can feel the heat,” he said.
A full draft of the bill is not yet available online, but bill leaders distributed a printed copy at Tuesday’s meeting. Full text below:
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