Senate lawmakers Wednesday significantly scaled back legislation that would’ve largely prevented private employers from enforcing COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
And that prompted several Hoosiers who used to be in favor of the measure to testify against it.
The committee made several changes to HB 1001. Perhaps the most significant has to do with religious exemptions to getting the vaccine. Previously, the bill forced employers to honor those requested exemptions, no matter what.
But now, employers must grant those exemptions based on compliance with existing federal law – so, essentially, the bill wouldn’t change the status quo.
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That’s not good enough for Hoosiers like Peter Vickery. He said he’s been suspended without pay from his job with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. And he said the federal standard didn’t protect him when he requested a religious exemption from getting the vaccine.
“The citizens of Indiana need more," Vickery said. "We need protections against the kinds of harsh discrimination I have experienced.”
Pharmacy student Hannah Zambrano also opposed the new version of the measure. As a future health care worker, Zambrano would not be impacted by the legislation as long as federal rules take precedence. But she still said Indiana lawmakers need to give Hoosiers more protection against vaccine mandates.
"Be sure of this – if you won't prioritize their medical freedom, they'll vote for someone who will," Zambrano said.
But businesses applaud the changes. Caryl Auslander represents several local chambers of commerce. They used to oppose the bill – and now, Auslander said they’re in support.
“Government interference in private business is not another thing we need added to our plate," Auslander said. "Employers know what is best when it comes to the safety and health of their businesses, employees and customers.”
Other changes to the bill would effect how employers require COVID-19 testing for their workers who don't get vaccinated. The measure would now allow businesses to require tests twice a week (up from once a week). And employers would not be barred from charging their employees for those tests, which the bill previously banned.
Those changes were not enough to gain the support of the Employers’ Forum of Indiana, which describes itself as an employer-led health care coalition. Its president, Gloria Sachdev, said any limitations on testing are not forward-thinking.
"Two times per week – reasonable for now. What about, if we get something really deadly that comes around in three or four months? Do we need to do it more often?" Sachdev said. "Are we going to have something in statute that prohibits that from happening?
The Senate committee also expanded the list of groups who aren't subject to the vaccine mandate rules created by the legislation. That includes professional sports and entertainment complexes.
Sen. Mark Messmer (R-Jasper), the bill's sponsor, said those complexes have performers or teams coming in from other states – and if those performers have vaccine rules as part of the contract they sign with the complexes, the bill won't interfere with that.
Sen. Shelli Yoder (D-Bloomington) questioned why lawmakers felt the need to carve out entertainment facilities but not allow public schools to enforce vaccine mandates.
"We're going to protect ... entertainers but not third graders?" Yoder said.
The Senate panel also deleted all language from the bill that involved unemployment benefits. The measure would've broadly allowed Hoosiers who are fired because of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate to still access those benefits.
"It gave a lot of heartburn to several of the employers during some of the earlier hearings of the bill," Messmer said.
The Indiana Department of Workforce Development evaluates whether a fired employee can receive unemployment benefits on a case-by-case basis.
The bill’s future still isn’t set. The House author of the bill, Rep. Matt Lehman (R-Berne) indicated the two chambers will continue to discuss the measure.