INDIANAPOLIS – Republican legislative leaders dropped a surprise bill Saturday – with a hearing scheduled for Tuesday – that significantly guts an employer's ability to mandate vaccines for its workers.
The bill was brought to insert the changes in state law that Gov. Eric Holcomb said he needs in order to let the public health emergency expire at the end of the month.
The new statutory language would allow Indiana to continue receiving the same federal reimbursements for SNAP and Medicaid and maintain the state's ability to hold voluntary community vaccination clinics.
But the proposal also includes substantive policy changes on vaccines that will have only one public hearing. Lawmakers will also suspend rules to pass it into law Nov. 29.
Republicans control the Indiana House and Senate by supermajorities, meaning they don't even need Democrats to reach a quorum to act.
Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray and House Speaker Todd Huston released the information Saturday morning.
“Indiana is successfully moving beyond the pandemic, and we've been working collaboratively with our Senate colleagues and the governor on responsibly closing out the state of emergency while protecting Hoosiers from overreaching federal mandates,” Huston said.
He continued: “There are only a few key components of the executive order that remain in place, including measures that help vulnerable Hoosiers. Before the emergency expires, we'll return for a one-day session to pass legislation addressing these issues.”
The move comes just days after the Indiana Chamber of Commerce released a legislative agenda that was topped with a request for lawmakers to leave businesses' ability to mandate COVID-19 vaccines alone. Several large companies in Indiana – including key health providers – have required their employees to be vaccinated or lose their jobs. But most have not.
Chamber executives wanted to maintain autonomy over their own decisions.
The proposed language would do four key things:
• Require businesses to grant any exemption requested by employees based on medical or religious reasons. Under current law, businesses can ask questions and determine if the request is legitimate.
• Require businesses that mandate vaccines to provide employees with an option to submit to weekly COVID-19 testing at no cost to the employee instead of getting vaccinated. This would also apply to those who receive an exemption.
• Prohibit an employer from mandating a vaccine for anyone who has tested positive for and recovered from COVID-19 for the six-month period following the employee's date of recovery.
• Ban an employer from taking an “adverse employment action” against an employee because the employee has requested or used an exemption from an employer's COVID-19 immunization requirement.
Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, said the bill is not retroactive and applies only to business decisions made after passage.
He said businesses can still mandate vaccines “but if you do, the employee has some rights.”
Lehman also defended the unusual process of passing a bill in one day and without full vetting, saying, “They are substantive policy changes that have been out there. We're just trying to bring some clarity. Businesses are asking us a lot of questions. We felt the need to be specific in code. We can wait until January, but some people are already losing their jobs.”
The Indiana Democratic Party's leader pushed back against the surprise bill.
“Indiana and Hoosiers need every tool possible to protect their families and put the pandemic behind us. Eliminating certain tools – like vaccine recommendations and emergency powers – puts the state in a weaker position to achieve this goal just as another wave is hitting Indiana and putting more lives at risk,” said Lauren Ganapini, executive director of the Indiana Democratic Party.
The bill also clarifies a law passed this year that banned state and local governments from requiring proof of vaccination – aka a vaccine passport. It expands the law from a state or local unit to any “Indiana governmental entity.”
That means it now covers public higher education institutions and all public school corporations.
Lehman said almost immediately after the initial law was passed there were questions about whether it applied to schools. He argues schools can still mandate vaccines but can't require proof of the immunization.
The House and Senate Rules Committees will meet in joint session Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. in the House Chamber.