Iowa Legislature passes vaccine exemption bill during special session

The bill, passed by the legislature on Thursday, states that medical and religious excuses will allow for employees to be exempt from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine and those fired for not complying will be eligible for unemployment benefits.


Jeff Sigmund

Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is drawn up on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020.

Lauren White, Politics Reporter

The Iowa House and Senate passed a bill that defines justifiable COVID-19 vaccine exemption and makes those who are fired from work for resisting vaccine mandates eligible for unemployment benefits after a heated debate between the parties. The bill passed in the house 67-27 and the Senate 45-4 in a relatively bipartisan approval.

Just a few hours before debate on the House floor, the State Government Committee introduced the bill. According to the bill, House File 902, medical and religious reasons will allow for employees to be exempt from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine by filing for a waiver that some Democrats say will make the current process more lenient.

The bill doesn’t include requirements that medical exemptions be granted by a medical professional.

Rep. Henry Stone, R-Winnebago, the bill’s sponsor, said that this bill stems from the Biden Administration’s plans for a vaccine mandate for federal contractors and a requirement that employees of businesses with more than 100 employees be vaccinated or tested weekly.

“When the Biden Administration released their plan that included an alarming level of government overreach the issue and we began to hear even more from Iowans our need to take action,” Stone said.

Stone said that businesses were soon going to be put in between a rock and a hard place trying to comply with federal law and state law.

Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, said that the bill is not clear about the effect it would have on Iowa businesses. She said that instead of punishing employers, it only makes it easier for workers who don’t want the vaccine to be excused.

“We have a bill that’s being touted as somehow protecting the jobs of Iowans who do not want to get vaccinated and it doesn’t do that — it creates a waiver system that is much more lenient than the current one,” she said.

Wolfe said that employers would still not have any penalties for firing non-compliant workers, an aspect that she assumes Iowans would need clarified.

Rep. Steve Holt, R-Denison, said that he sees the bill as extremely effective, contrary to what his Democratic counterparts say. He said that defining how vaccine exemptions are handled will help make the process smoother for Iowans and keep more jobs than not.

“I think very, very few employers, once they’re given the opportunity to grant these exemption requests, are going to determine or decide to terminate these folks,” Holt said.

With businesses already struggling to find employees, Holt said that businesses will choose to keep their current employees rather than fire them for not complying with the vaccine mandate.

Rep. Jeff Shipley, R-Birmingham, who is vocally anti-vaccine and has spread vaccine misinformation online, said that Iowans have the right to their own medical and religious convictions in not complying to vaccine mandates.

Shipley said that this bill would help to create a culture of respect for others’ personal decisions and that it will protect Iowan’s freedoms.

“That’s what I want to see in the state of Iowa. That you come to the state of Iowa, you will not be forced to take something against your will and your health will be respected,” Shipley said.

Along with defining the COVID-19 medical and religious vaccine exemptions, the bill states that employees who are fired for not complying with workplace vaccine mandates will be eligible for unemployment benefits.

During the committee meeting and the floor debate, Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, said that she was concerned about the fiscal impact of this bill, as it would expand unemployment benefits and possibly drain them.

“​​I look at how important it is for us to do our homework here. We have a responsibility to the people of Iowa to thoroughly vet bills before we vote on them, and one of the vetting processes is identifying what the fiscal impact will be on any kind of fund,” Mascher said.

In his closing remarks, Stone said that his colleagues should want to be remembered for choosing to help Iowans by voting yes on the bill.

“Voting no on this bill will allow the voices of good men and women of Iowa to go unheard and ignored,” Stone said. “Voting no on this bill will put needless stress and heartache on families as they go on job searches over the holidays.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds said in a press release that Iowans deserve to choose what’s best for themselves and shouldn’t lose their job over that choice. She said that, if the Biden Administration decides to follow through with their vaccine mandate plan, she will counter with legal action.

“Not only do I plan to sign this legislation, but I am committed to doing even more. When the Biden Administration issues the OSHA vaccine mandate in the coming days, we will take immediate legal action,” Reynolds said.