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Kan. governor signs bill pushing back against federal COVID vaccine mandates into law

Published: Nov. 22, 2021 at 8:13 AM CST
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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP and KWCH) - Update Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021: Kansas Governor Laura Kelly signed the bill legislators passed out of special session concerning federal vaccine mandates. The legislation will make it easy for workers to claim religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccine requirements and promises unemployment benefits to Kansas workers who are fired after refusing the shots.

After signing the bill, Kelly issued the follow statement.

“I have been clear that I believe it is too late to impose a federal standard. States have been leading the fight against COVID-19 for nearly two years. I know there are Kansans who believe this legislation goes too far, and there are others who believe this legislation doesn’t go far enough. But I was elected to lead, and leadership means seeking compromise.

“This bill is the result of compromise in action. Now that it is signed, we need to turn our attention towards pressing issues like growing our economy and passing my plan to Axe the Food Tax, so we can put money back into everyday Kansans’ pockets.”

More information about the legislation, House Bill 2001, here.

Update late Monday night, Nov. 22: By a vote of 77-34 in the House and 24-11 in the Senate, Kansas legislators advanced a compromise bill to Kansas Governor Laura Kelly and ended the special session called as Republican leaders in the state push back against federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Kelly said she intends to sign the bill that, in part, provides for medical and religious exemptions to opt out of getting a COVID-19 vaccine and requires employers to accept exemptions without questions. If an employer doesn’t offer an exemption, denies an exemption request or terminated an employee after submitting an exemption, the employee can file a claim with the Kansas Department of Labor. KDOL has 60 days to investigate. If a violation is found, employers with under 100 employees can be fined up to $10,000 per violation. Employers with 100 or more employees could be fined up to $50,000 per violation. The money goes into the unemployment fund. The Attorney General determines the fine amount.

Also in the bill, if an employee is terminated for not complying with an employers vaccine requirement, they can file for unemployment.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt also issued a statement late Monday night in support of the legislation:

“I have opposed the Biden administration’s illegal federal ‘jab-or-job’ mandates from the day he announced them. The outcome our lawsuits seek is for federal courts to invalidate these mandates entirely, and I will keep fighting in court to make that happen.

“The legislature’s actions today are a welcome companion to our ongoing legal efforts. This new legislation strengthens protections for religious liberty and guards Kansans’ jobs. I commend the legislature for their focused work, encourage them to pass this compromise legislation, and if I were governor, I would sign it into law.”

Update Monday evening, Nov. 22: The special session is ongoing in Topeka as Kansas Republicans look to push back against federal COVID-19 vaccine requirements. The issues of exemptions and unemployment benefits are part of the day-long debate. One item that could also be included is a ban on employers issuing vaccine mandates at their businesses.

Both the Kansas House and Senate passed through bills by late Monday afternoon. The House version deals just with exemptions, while the Senate goes a step farther, including unemployment benefits and going as far as prohibiting employers from issues vaccine requirements. Now, the two chambers have to work out their differences.

The Main provision of both bills provides for religious, medical exemptions. If an employee is upset their employer didn’t accept their exemption or didn’t provide a way to file one, they can file a claim with the Kansas Department of Labor. Per violation, employers can be fined between $10,000 and $15,000 in the Senate bill.

“The key here is that we thread the needle so that our employers and our employees have direction going forward,” Rep. Stephen Owens, R-Hesston said.

As some Republicans pushed to go farther on countering the federal vaccine mandates, the Kansas Chamber, business groups and Democrats said this doesn’t help employers, but raises concerns. Minority leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita said this is making the situation worse.

“They’ve got two different mandates they’re trying to apply, not only federal mandates. Now, they have state mandates and some that are in conflict,” Sawyer said. “So, it really puts businesses in a very tough situation, and some of them could face big fines.”

Some nurses are part of a group rallying at the state capitol against vaccine mandates. Those nurses gathered with the larger group in Topeka said they refused to get a COVID-19 vaccine and say the exemption is the man issue for the. Former Ascension Via Christi nurses Mellony Osburn and Megan Majors said possible legislation could get them back into their jobs.

“That’s the thing. We say we’re in a pandemic, our skills are needed, but yet we cannot work, Osburn said.

Republican lawmakers organized the special session to push back on those federal COVID-19 vaccine requirements, even as they face challenges in the court.

“Many of us in this room are hearing the exact same concerns from their constituents. Their employers don’t know how to implement these. Some of them are going too strong on them,. We’ve heard of retaliation,” Owens said.

A final version of the bill would allow people to collect unemployment if fired for not getting a COVID-19 vaccine as required by their employer and the exemptions for medical, moral and religious reasons.

If the bill reached Governor Laura Kelly’s desk, the governor hasn’t indicated what action she’ll take.

Update Monday morning, Nov. 22: HB2001, allowing employees to cite religious or medical exemption for vaccine refusal without employer resistance, has passed in the Kansas House of Representatives, 78-40. It’s the first of many steps to push the bill into law.

Similar legislation is being drafted by the state Senate. The Senate bill includes unemployment benefits for those fired for being unvaccinated.

The House bill allows workers to file a complaint with the Kansas Department of Labor if the exemption is denied. The Attorney General’s Office can levy fines if the employer doesn’t reinstate the worker with back pay.

Conservative Kansas legislators are trying to tamp down fears about the cost and other potential problems with their proposal to provide unemployment benefits to workers who lose their jobs for refusing COVID-19 vaccines.

The GOP-controlled Legislature is expected to consider the measure during a special session that convenes Monday, along with another proposal that would make it easier for workers to claim religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates. The measures are responses to vaccine mandates from President Joe Biden covering more than 100 million American workers.

The push for unemployment benefits for vaccine-refusing workers comes after GOP lawmakers worried for months that the depletion of funds to pay claims last year during the pandemic would force an increase in the state tax that finances the benefits. There’s bipartisan concern that the unemployment proposal before lawmakers now could lead to such a tax increase.

“I certainly don’t want to see increased unemployment taxes or that type of thing because of our actions,” Republican state Sen. Jeff Longbine of Emporia said.

Kansas’ special legislative session comes as Republican governors, state attorneys general and lawmakers are pursuing ways to push back against the Biden mandates. Iowa enacted a law last month extending unemployment benefits to workers who refuse to get vaccinated.

Although vaccine mandates from private companies and local officials have boosted inoculation rates, GOP officials across the U.S. see Biden’s mandates as violating personal liberties.

“No American should lose their livelihood because their personal health care decisions differ from the preferences of the president of the United States,” said C.J. Grover, a spokesperson for Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican running for governor next year. He endorsed the legislative proposals.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly opposes Biden’s mandates but didn’t publicly embrace specific proposals ahead of the special session. Her administration is handling questions about whether unvaccinated workers receive unemployment benefits case by case.

Lawmakers have no good estimates of how much the GOP unemployment proposal might cost the state. Business groups have suggested it could be hundreds of millions of dollars, but backers of the measure insist it will be close to zero.

They said that’s because of the companion proposal on religious exemptions. It says workers asking for exemptions must get them without having their belief scrutinized — and employers could face tens of thousands of dollars in state fines if exemptions are rejected. Conservative Republicans said workers will seek exemptions knowing they’ll be granted and that people won’t lose their jobs, so unemployment benefits won’t be needed.

“If we were to only pass the unemployment piece and not the other part, then we could have some real issues, but I don’t think that’s going to be the case,” said Rep. Stephen Owens, a Hesston Republican.

Critics predict abuses. Rabbi Moti Rieber, the executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action, said the policy would allow people with political objections to falsely claim religious ones.

“Opposition to the public health is the religion,” he said. “Trumpism is the religion.”

One question is whether such a state law can be enforced because federal law is supreme. A mandate from Biden for workers at companies with 100 or more employees allows workers to opt for regular COVID-19 testing instead, and it permits “reasonable accommodations” for “sincerely held” religious beliefs.

Owens and other Republicans argue that the Kansas measure on religious exemptions wouldn’t conflict with Biden’s mandate and would withstand a possible court challenge. They argue that the proposal merely gives more guidance to businesses.

“If they just stick to that and accept the exemptions, we will protect the unemployment fund,” said Republican Rep. Sean Tarwater, of Stilwell.

But the influential Kansas Chamber of Commerce and National Federation of Independent Business had strong doubts.

They fear businesses would face a choice: Comply with state law and face federal government fines or follow the federal mandate and get sued in state court.

“It certainly is a very tough place to be,” said Chuck Grier, president and CEO of UCI, an industrial construction company. “And it’s also a very tough place to be when you think that you could potentially lose employees who are good employees because they refuse to follow a government mandate.”

Some Democrats argue that the proposals are being rushed. Lawrence Rep. Boog Highberger dismisses them as “political theater” signaling a refusal by Republicans to sacrifice for the public good.

“If the people in the Kansas Legislature were running our country in the 40s and 50s, we would have lost World War II and we’d still have polio,” Highberger said.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.