SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah bill that would prohibit private businesses from requiring employees to get the COVID-19 vaccination received a Senate committee’s OK after a heated debate on Tuesday.

“This is a pro-choice bill, in a way we don’t usually think about pro-choice,” said bill sponsor Sen. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine.

SB208 would ban employers from requiring employees, prospective employees or blood relatives of employees or prospective employees to accept or decline any medical procedure. The bill would make employers that violate the law liable “for any and all injury and damage caused by the employer’s violation.”

“I feel really strongly that each individual, we have a right to direct our lives in ways that we see fit. And we make not-so-good decisions sometimes, other times we make really good decisions,” Kennedy, a medical doctor, told members of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.

The bill — which Kennedy said he’s proposing in the wake of frustration about health mandates put in place during the pandemic — prompted a heated debate between some who pleaded for personal choice and others who decried potentially taking away businesses’ abilities to protect employees and customers.

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Under the bill, the only employees who could be required to get vaccinations are those at health care facilities or those in positions within the health care industry in which they face a significant risk of exposure to bodily fluids or communicable disease.

Government employers could require employees to get the vaccine if they are acting in a public health or medical setting and are required to receive a vaccine to perform their duties and responsibilities, according to the bill.

A ‘Pandora’s box’ of mandates?

Dr. James Zebrack, a physician at St. Mark’s Hospital in Millcreek who helped Kennedy present the bill, said that patients should have freedom to make health care choices for themselves. There are many reasons for people to choose not to receive vaccines — some have already been infected by the virus, some face “very low risk” from the disease, and some have allergies or autoimmune disorders. 

“Currently the science of vaccines has not been around long enough to really know the long-term consequences. There’s a lot of fear around the vaccines in particular and it will take time to figure out what the actual risk-benefit is for each individual,” Zebrack said. 

Phil Allred, an electrician, said he was working at one of Utah’s largest construction job sites when COVID-19 restrictions first hit. The largest contractor on the job wanted to establish its own protocols, he said, and the company “went above and beyond.”

He said all workers needed to wear face masks, but that made their safety goggles fog up, leading to fewer than half of the workers continuing to wear goggles.

“It was made very clear to us that if we question COVID at all, we will be run off the job site,” Allred said, explaining that he believes the company didn’t want to implement such strict measures but feared getting sued if they didn’t.

“They could walk through and see us not wearing safety eyewear, but they would rather risk us wearing masks than eyeglasses,” Allred said. “This is Pandora’s box we’re talking about, because they will require us to get vaccinated just to play it safe.”

Teri Bishop, a mother of three sons with autism who have suffered bad reactions to vaccines, said that one of her sons works at a grocery store. She fears the store will require him to get a vaccine and he will need to quit. But finding a new job is difficult for those with disabilities, she noted.

Olivia Dawn, with the Utah Eagle Forum, said she became unemployed due to not being able to wear a mask due to post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I chose to leave rather than be fired due to the fact that they were requiring it,” Dawn said. 

She said she couldn’t find work for the rest of 2020 due to mask requirements. 

Dawn urged lawmakers to let businesses allow employee vaccine exemptions without “fear of fine or fee.”

‘This goes far beyond masks and vaccinations’

Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, who owns a pharmacy, noted that religious and medical exemptions already exist in the law for those who can’t get vaccines or wear masks, for example.

But Kennedy contended that not all employers accommodate exemptions, and he’s heard of employees getting fired for refusing to comply with medical requirements.

“This bill is targeting (those businesses), and frankly I think it’s a very modest request because most employees want the vaccine, most employees are happy to wear masks,” Kennedy said.

Senate Assistant Minority Whip Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, said she believes patients should have control over their own bodies but noted that the vaccine isn’t now mandated.

Although many during the meeting complained of mask mandates, businesses have implemented measures like mask wearing so they can stay open, Iwamoto said.

“This is to wear to protect other people. And so when it impacts others ... we’re not doing it for ourselves but we’re trying to protect other people that we love and our colleagues, too,” she said.

Senate Rules Chairman Gregg Buxton, R-Roy, said that in workplaces like police departments, one officer without the vaccine could get sick and spread it to the rest of the department as they work in close quarters. The same situation could occur on construction jobs, leading to lawsuits from clients, Buxton said.

Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, pointed out that some large employers in Utah like Northrop Grumman, a contractor for the Department of Defense, need to comply with federal vaccination requirements.

A spokesman with Northrop Grumman, which has 6,000 employees in the state, said: “This bill … would preclude us from meeting the obligations embedded in the contract we have with the Department of Defense.” He asked for an amendment to the bill that would exempt contractors with the department.

Kennedy said the decision about whether or not to require vaccines will be a “calculated risk” for employers. They will only face liability if damage occurs based on them requiring vaccines, he said, pointing to the scarcity of vaccine injuries.

Dave Davis, president of Utah Retail Merchants Association, said the group is opposed to the bill because “this goes far beyond masks and vaccinations. When you look at the definition of medical procedure … it talks about other actions intended to affect or alter the physical or mental health of an individual.”

It also “creates sort of this unlimited civil liability for any and all injury and damage,” according to Davis, as the bill allows employees to be awarded attorneys fees.

“I think it sort of incentivizes litigiousness,” Davis said.

He said it may also conflict with businesses’ drug testing requirements, COVID-19 testing, medical card requirements for truck drivers, and treatment for workers compensation injuries.

Michelle McOmber, Utah Medical Association CEO, said the group opposes the bill as written. 

Individuals should have the ability to control their own health care, but we put limitations on individuals for the benefit of others, McOmber said, pointing to restrictions from smoking indoors. In jobs where employees work in close quarters, like meatpacking businesses, “it is the right of the employer to require certain things,” she said.

Jacey Skinner, with Salt Lake Chamber, said that business owners need to be able to make decisions for their businesses.

The organization has tried to get a sense of how the bill will impact businesses. Skinner said she is not aware of a large number of businesses that plan to require vaccinations “but it is important that they have the right to do that for their private organizations” and make safety decisions for employees and patrons.

Buxton requested the bill be sent to an interim committee for consideration after the legislative session.

But Anderegg said that although he doesn’t believe the bill is a “finished product,” he doesn’t want the discussion to end.

“And I think there are those crying out right now that do need relief right now,” he said.

The bill received a 4-3 favorable recommendation and will move to the full Senate for consideration.