Utah lawmakers battle COVID vaccine mandates with another mandate

Employees could opt-out of vaccine requirements for ‘deeply held personal beliefs.’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Pledge of Allegiance in the House Chamber as the Utah Legislature hold a special session in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021.

After watering it down some, a bill targeting businesses that mandate employees get the COVID-19 vaccine won final passage on Wednesday and awaits Gov. Spencer Cox’s signature.

Lawmakers claim the bill has been in the works for several months, but it’s hard to escape the thought it is a response to the Biden administration’s mandate that private businesses with 100 or more employees require the COVID-19 vaccination or weekly testing for workers. Utah has already sued the federal government to stop the requirement.

Under SB2004 from Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, any business requiring employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19 must allow employees to opt-out for medical or religious reasons, which are already recognized in federal law.

Lawmakers added a third exemption — a “sincerely held personal belief.”

Cullimore says lawmakers wanted to find a way to balance the rights of private business and individual rights, many of whom may be facing the loss of their job due to their refusal to take the COVID vaccine.

“We recognize that employees are not the property of employers, and we need to respect the rights of employees to make medical decisions that are best for them and their families,” Cullimore said.

The bill prevents private employers in Utah from taking action against employees who use one of those exemptions. Employers must also pay for any required COVID-19 testing.

The exemptions could cause headaches for companies with federal contracts, so they’ve been excluded from the bill.

Rep. Tim Hawkes, R-Centerville, said both the federal and state vaccine mandates were an unprecedented intrusion into the dealings of private business, and moving quickly on this issue is ill-advised.

“I know the public feels this desperation to act, but haste makes waste,” Hawkes said. “In this special session, we have not fully thought things through. I just don’t think this bill is ready for primetime.”

Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, said the personal exemption was too broad and suggested the bill did nothing more than pick a needless fight with the federal government.

“Basically, someone can opt-out because they just don’t want to do it. If we are constantly going to create hurdles that prevent us from being part of the federal government by creating carve-outs for people who just don’t want to do something, how does that benefit the community?” Riebe asked.

The bill sprang from a pair of raucous public hearings over the past 45 days where anti-vaccine groups swarmed the Capitol to voice their concerns about the vaccine and government overreach.

Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, wondered why Republicans in the Legislature were falling over backward to accommodate a vocal minority while putting businesses in a tough spot since the legislation goes far beyond the vaccine or testing mandate from the Biden administration, targeting smaller businesses with as few as 15 employees.

“This is an anti-business bill,” Escamilla said. “You are putting businesses in a very risky place, and it’s not good public policy.”

A federal appeals court has placed the federal mandate on hold. If that hold were to be lifted, then the federal law would make the Utah law moot. In that case, Utah businesses that allow employees to take advantage of the exemptions would find themselves in violation of federal law.

The exemptions in the bill are the same ones Utah has used in public and higher education for several years.