Indiana Chamber of Commerce CEO Kevin Brinegar told legislators Tuesday that the state's leading business organization opposes legislation that would limit the ability of companies to impose COVID vaccine requirements on their employees. Times of Northwest Indiana screenshot
Indiana Chamber of Commerce CEO Kevin Brinegar told legislators Tuesday that the state's leading business organization opposes legislation that would limit the ability of companies to impose COVID vaccine requirements on their employees. Times of Northwest Indiana screenshot
If the Indiana General Assembly moves forward next week with its plan to limit COVID-19 vaccine requirements at private companies, it will do so over the objection of the state's leading business and health care organizations.

On Tuesday, representatives from the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, Indiana Manufacturers Association, Indiana Restaurant and Lodging Association, and the Indiana State Medical Association, among others, told a special legislative panel it would be a serious mistake for Hoosier lawmakers to enact the restrictions contained in Preliminary Draft 3651.

"COVID is booming," said Dr. Stephen Tharp, of Frankfort, on behalf of the ISMA. "The emergency rooms are packed, hospitals are full, and wait times are long.

"We need to continue to promote vaccination for Hoosiers as a way to end this pandemic."

The Indiana Department of Health is urging all Hoosiers to get vaccinated against COVID-19, particuarly the more infectious delta variant

The proposed legislation — set to be considered for immediate enactment during an unusual one-day meeting of the General Assembly Monday — would compel all Indiana businesses with a COVID-19 vaccine requirement to allow any full- or part-time employee with a medical, religious, or general objection to the vaccine, or a recent COVID-19 infection and recovery, to automatically opt-out of the company's vaccine mandate.

Employers could then require those employees participate in weekly COVID-19 testing. But the cost of the testing could not be passed on to the worker, according to the legislation.

Kevin Brinegar, CEO of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, said a large company with 300 employees who opt-out of a vaccine mandate could easily incur $1 million in testing costs over a six month period if its unvaccinated employees are tested weekly.

He said that would be very expensive for any business to absorb, especially with practically no time to prepare before the legislation takes effect, and doesn't even count the potential cost to Indiana companies for lost work time and transportation associated with employee COVID-19 testing.

Patrick Tamm, of the restaurant association, and Andrew Berger, from the manufacturers association, also pointed out many of their members are federal contractors and would be subject to two sets of rules regarding employee COVID-19 vaccinations if the Indiana proposal becomes law.

All three leaders said Indiana businesses don't want to be told they have to mandate COVID-19 vaccines, as the federal government is doing, or face myriad state restrictions if a business chooses to require its workers be protected against infection, hospitalization and death from COVID-19.

"Employers are in the best position to determine what's best for their workforce," Tamm said.

State Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, sponsor of the proposal, said the idea for it originated when Lehman learned one of his friends is on the verge of losing his job for refusing to comply with his employer's COVID-19 vaccine requirement.

Lehman said he generally agrees businesses have a right to manage their own affairs. But he said Hoosiers also have an individual right to refuse medical treatment, particularly if it conflicts with their religious beliefs, and his plan aims to protect those rights.

"These are unprecedented times," Lehman said. "We are charting new territory."

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Lehman noted nothing in his proposal requires Indiana employers to do anything, including imposing a COVID-19 vaccine requirement or mandating testing for employees who opt-out.

He said it simply creates guidelines to protect the liberty of Hoosier workers if their employers choose to require COVID-19 vaccination.

A series of health care workers affiliated with the Ascension health system told the legislative panel they would welcome the protections because they claim their employer unjustly rejected their sincerely held religious beliefs against the COVID-19 vaccine and now are facing termination for refusing to comply with the company's COVID-19 vaccine requirement.

At the same time, other vaccine opponents said during the seven-hour hearing that Lehman's proposal does not go far enough because it fails to outright prohibit employer COVID-19 vaccine requirements, and should not become law since companies still would have the option to mandate vaccination.

Still others falsely insisted the COVID-19 pandemic is not real despite killing more than 17,000 Hoosiers in the past 20 months, erroneously claimed the pandemic is a government conspiracy, and presented other fantastic allegations concerning COVID-19, ranging from Nazi medical experiments to altered DNA.

Even if enacted into law, the Indiana vaccine mandate opt-outs and testing alternative likely would be superseded should the federal government's vaccine mandates for employees at federal contractors, most health care providers, and companies with more than 100 workers survive various pending court challenges, including three lawsuits filed by Indiana.

Beyond the vaccine issue, Democrats serving on the House and Senate rules committees objected to Lehman's plan on procedural grounds, since the General Assembly never has convened between Organization Day (held Nov. 16) and the start of the regular 10-week session, set for Jan. 4, to hastily enact legislation like this.

"Quite frankly, the timing stinks. The COVID numbers are going up in Indiana, including among children," said state Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson. "I'm quite frankly concerned about why we are straying from the usual process we engage in."

State Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, likewise took issue with the GOP's plan to seemingly undermine the COVID-19 vaccination efforts of the state and the private sector when COVID-19 infections are rising in Indiana.

"It disempowers employers and schools in unprecedented ways and represents an undemocratic disruption in the way we legislate — the fact that the supermajority has to suspend Indiana’s constitutional rules to push this language through fully illustrates the issues with this entire process," Melton said.

A two-thirds vote in each chamber is required to suspend the usual House and Senate rules and approve the measure in a single day, which is likely to be met unless a significant number of lawmakers are absent or decide to break from their political party on this issue.

Republicans currently control 71 of 100 House seats (71%) and 39 of the 50 (78%) seats in the Senate. Although, state Rep. John Jacob, R-Indianapolis, already declared he will not support the proposal, in part because it provides no penalties for employers who flaunt the rules and he's certain without penalties some businesses will thumb their noses at it.

The legislation also aims to bring an end to the governor's continuing COVID-19 emergency declaration by incorporating into state law the remaining provisions of Gov. Eric Holcomb's COVID-19 executive orders that then would expire Dec. 1.

Under the plan, the state health commissioner would gain the authority to issue an emergency declaration to ensure Indiana continues receiving enhanced federal Medicaid and food assistance because of the pandemic, as well as the power to issue a standing health order to permit the COVID-19 vaccine be provided to children ages 5-11 with their parents' consent.
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