By CAROLINE BECK, MARY SELL and TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Alabama Legislature late Thursday passed bills to make it easier for workers in the state to opt out of federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates and prohibit minors from getting vaccinated against the virus without parental consent.
They now go to Gov. Kay Ivey for her signature.
Lawmakers worked into the night Thursday on compromises between Senate and House-passed versions of the bills. The road to final passage on both bills was bumpy in the week-long special session that was supposed to focus on voting district maps.
At times the legislation pit the GOP-dominant Legislature against business groups in the state. Senate Bill 9 would allow employees to claim a religious or medical exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine through a standardized form given to employers. The law will sunset, or expire, in May 2023.
Bill sponsor Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Daphne, said lawmakers could adjust the law sooner than that in the upcoming regular legislative session that starts in January, should the situation with federal mandates change.
“There were lots of different issues, but the overarching one was being pro-business and being pro-freedom, religious and individual liberty. I think we struck the best possible balance here in the short term,” Elliot said. “I understand the business community’s concerns because they are looking out for their members. My job is to look out for my constituents and the people of Alabama, not just businesses.”
Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, was one of the two “no” votes on Senate Bill 9 in the Senate.
“I’m against mandates of all kinds, federal and state,” Stutts said. “I voted no because I’m concerned about the impact on employers. This should be a non-issue. Employees should have freedom and so should employers.”
The House passed Senate Bill 9 with a final vote of 75-27.
Meanwhile, Senate Bill 15 by Sen. Arthur Orr as originally written would strengthen Alabama’s existing vaccine passport ban law, which says businesses and entities can’t deny service based on vaccine status, with prosecutorial authority for the attorney general. As passed it simply prohibits COVID-19 vaccinations for minors without parental consent. State law says teens age 14 and up can consent to medical care.
“Politics is a strange thing,” Orr said in a committee meeting late Thursday. “This bill started out as a bill to give the attorney general express enforcement powers on the passport bill that passed last May,” Orr said.
It wound up “more or less” Sen. Sam Givhan’s Senate Bill 6, Orr said. It also says institutions of education can’t ask minors their COVID-vaccination status without parental consent.
The bills passed with overwhelming margins in both the House and Senate. But Republicans and Democrats voiced concerns about how the exemption bill could hurt businesses, especially federal contractors, and Alabama’s claim as a right-to-work state. While the House attempted to make the exemption bill more palatable to business owners, the Business Council of Alabama still opposed it Thursday night.
“This version continues to put employers and particularly federal contractors in a no-win situation between existing federal rules and conflicting proposed state laws,” BCA said in a written statement. “Non-compliance with the federal mandate could result in the loss of current and future contracts and jobs for their companies and communities.”
Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, handled the bill in the House and said the bill would protect employees and employers in the state.
“We are trying to make sure that this is a job protection type of bill,” Jones said.
The bill prohibits employers from terminating an individual for refusing a COVID-19 vaccine if they complete the exemption form.
Some of the exemptions listed on the form include if a person has received monoclonal antibodies or convalescent plasma in the past 90 days, has a bleeding disorder or are taking blood thinners, is severely immunocompromised or has been diagnosed with COVID-19 within the past 12 months. If the individual claims that their health care provider has recommended against getting the vaccine, they would now have to get their provider’s signature on the form.
If a vaccine exemption is denied, the employee would have seven days to appeal to the Alabama Department of Labor. An administrative law judge hired by the department has 30 days to make a final ruling. The bill also requires employers to provide paid leave while the appeals process plays out, potentially allowing up to 37 days.
The bill also specifically states that employers can still fire an individual for any other reason, other than COVID-19 vaccination status.
House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, said he believes the bill is going to kill jobs and has received calls from defense contractors in North Alabama concerned about the bill.
“We’re forcing them to have more red tape and adding more regulations for them to be able to operate in the state of Alabama is a shame,” Daniels said.
Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, questioned why the bill was even being considered when it wasn’t included in Gov. Kay Ivey’s special session call. She also questioned how the ADOL would pay for the administrative law judge.
“I think it’s important that we make sure those funds are available, and I think the funding should be included in this legislation,” Hall said.
The final version did include a provision directing the Legislature to appropriate funds for the judge during next year’s regular session.
Rep. Proncey Robertson, R-Mt. Hope, said Thursday morning he was supportive of the concept of the bill, but wanted to see the burden of disputing a termination because of vaccine status fall on the employee.
“This is a difficult subject to find a balance to,” Robertson said. “We don’t want to put our businesses between a rock and a hard place, that being federal regulation and funding versus state law.”
“The real problem starts with the Biden administration, the federal government and these overreaches,” Robertson said.
Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, said he’d gotten lots of calls from business owners and groups asking him to vote no. As a business owner, he said he’s been opposed to it. In the end, he voted yes.
“I hate to start mandating to businesses in Alabama what they can and cannot do, because they’re the ones that keep our state going” Greer said. “At the same time, we don’t want people fired for not taking a vaccine.”
He said that if and when the federal mandate is blocked by the courts, the state will still have its law on the books.
“We may be putting into state law something that we do not really need,” Greer said.
Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, ended up voting for SB9 but said earlier in the day before the bill was eventually changed that he thinks the state should go about protecting employees or employers in a different way.
“I think if Alabama goes down that path, it is a departure from what we’ve done that has given us a lot of success economically,” Ball told ADN.
Rep. Juandalynn Givan, D-Birmingham, said she disagreed with the bill because there is no way to verify if a person’s exemption form is truthful or not.
“I feel like we’re just opening the door for anyone to go in and take this form and I have a friend who is a healthcare provider and could do a check off on this form,” Givan said.
Rep. Louise Alexander, D-Bessemer, voted against the bill and said she has gotten COVID-19 and has attended many funerals because of the virus.
“This is something we should not play with,” she said.
The Huntsville/Madison Chamber of Commerce, which counts many federal contractors as members, also opposed anti-mandate bills in this special session. In all, there were 13.
“Employers are not at liberty to choose which federal mandates they support,” the chamber said in a written statement. “Compliance with such mandates, however, should not be misinterpreted as support for the mandates.
“… While these bills are trying to help the workforce, they will have the opposite effect. It places every federal contractor in a no-win situation of being sued by employees for following the mandate or giving up all contracts for not following it. Either way, the employee will be out of a job and a business will likely cease to exist.”
Alabama joined with a coalition of other states in a lawsuit filed last week challenging the vaccine mandate on federal contractors. The lawsuit is part of Republican-led efforts to oppose the federal requirements.