Eric Stafford, a lobbyist for the Kansas Chamber, says businesses don’t like being trapped between federal mandates and proposed state laws. (Thad Allton for Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Eric Stafford, lobbyist for the Kansas Chamber, wants legislators to understand that businesses don’t want mandates “from either side.”
He expressed concern Friday over legislation drafted by Kansas lawmakers as they gear up for a special session to address federal COVID-19 mandates. The proposals, Stafford warned, will burden businesses by draining the unemployment insurance trust fund and punishing businesses for enforcing federal mandates.
“We didn’t ask to be here,” Stafford said. “We were thrown in this.”
Members of the Special Committee on Government Overreach and the Impact of COVID-19 Mandates met Friday to gather public input on two proposed bills ahead of a special session planned for the week of Thanksgiving. Every Republican in the House and Senate and one House Democrat signed a petition to force the special session.
The hearing meandered away from concerns with federal rules and into discussion of Holocaust comparisons, state law guiding K-12 school immunizations against various diseases, and proposed financial liabilities for private businesses that question religious beliefs. As with past meetings of the government overreach committee, the discussion came with a heavy dose of misinformation about the safety and efficacy of vaccines.
Debbie Mize, one of three self-described “praying grandmas” who founded the prominent anti-vaccine group Kansans for Health Freedom, said a 12-year-old girl in her community died this week “after being coerced into taking a COVID injection.” She also claimed that vaccines are made from fetal cells that can only be harvested by slashing the necks of “aborted babies that must be born alive.”
“Vaccines are not safe and effective,” Mize said. “Do like I did and ask for the research.”
As of Friday, the virus has killed 6,618 Kansans, hospitalized 15,255, and infected 447,794, according to records maintained by the Kansas Department for Health and Environment.
New cases are on the rise across the state, with 2,705 reported between Wednesday and Friday.
Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, crafted the two bills under consideration by the committee.
One bill would prohibit employers from questioning a worker’s medical needs or sincerely held religious beliefs when seeking an exemption to a vaccine requirement, with financial penalties applied through legal action to businesses who break the law. Another proposal would provide unemployment benefits to workers who are fired for refusing to get a vaccine.
Everyone who testified complained about the bills — mostly because they don’t go far enough to prevent discrimination against those who refuse to get vaccinated.
“It’s like I’m in prison, and I’m punished every single day just for asking for the accommodations,” said Lauren Shiffman, of Lenexa. “I’ll tell you, it’s by design. It’s to get people to submit to the vaccine.”
President Joe Biden issued an executive order requiring federal employees and contractors to be vaccinated from COVID-19 by Jan. 4. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration will force businesses with 100 or more employees to require workers to be vaccinated or wear a mask and submit to weekly testing. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is threatening to withhold funding from nursing homes and other health care settings unless employees are vaccinated.
Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who is running for governor in next year’s election, has joined three lawsuits challenging those mandates. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, who is seeking re-election, also opposes federal mandates.
All of the mandates allow exemptions for medical conditions, disabilities and sincerely held religious beliefs.
Lawmakers are concerned, however, that public schools and universities in particular may be too aggressive in questioning the sincerity of religious beliefs. Under Masterson’s proposal, employers who make such inquiries would be subject to lawsuits where they would have to pay punitive damages and attorney fees.
Stafford, the chamber lobbyist, said the proposal places employers in a difficult decision, where they are forced to decide “which terrible option is the best.” They risk heavy fines from OSHA for failing to comply with the safety rules, or face lawsuits by employees because they enforced the mandates.
Masterson’s unemployment bill “creates an environment that encourages bad behavior by individuals who could turn in a frivolous claim,” Stafford said
The bill could cost the state billions of dollars in claims, Stafford said, draining the unemployment fund by summer.
“If you think we have a worker shortage now,” Stafford said, “wait until this bill becomes law.”
Vaccines in schools
Committee members raised concerns about the unilateral ability of health secretary Lee Norman to add the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of required immunizations for public schools.
Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, pointed out that state law already requires the attorney general to review new vaccine requirements before they are finalized.
“What that means is if Lee Norman wants to mandate COVID vaccinations in Kansas, Derek Schmidt would have to sign off,” Carmichael said.
Schmidt previously signed off on a state mandate for the meningitis vaccine that went into effect in 2019.
Clint Blaes, a spokesman for Schmidt’s office, said in response to an inquiry from Kansas Reflector that the attorney general’s role is limited to reviewing regulations for legality.
“Approval of a proposed regulation by the attorney general’s office does not reflect the attorney general’s policy position on the regulation, simply that the proposed regulation fit within the statutory authority of the agency that proposed it,” Blaes said.
Schmidt earlier this year proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow the Legislature to reject regulations from the health secretary.
Matt Lara, spokesman for KDHE, said an estimated 1.97% of public school students in Kansas have a medical or religious exemption for required vaccines. Medical exemptions must be renewed on an annual basis, he said, while religious exemptions remain in place as long as the student is at a school.
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