GLORIA GOMEZ/UA DON BOLLES FELLOW
Alexandra Pere next Fri, January 28, 2022 at the 11:16 a.m
Employers who refuse both religious exemption and require vaccination for continued employment would expose themselves to lawsuits from workers reporting adverse effects. If employees sue, they get at least $500,000 — more if the court finds the damages and costs of the lawsuit are greater. In contrast, the average workers’ compensation insurance is around $20,000.
Donny Rodenkirk, of Nguyen District, told the committee that his wife’s employer denied her request for religious exemption, which forced her to take a vaccine he claimed was negatively affecting her health, leading to led to a sudden onset of seizures.
Nguyen’s bill does not specify who will decide whether the reported injury was the result of vaccination or how that determination will be made. No medical diagnosis is required to sue an employer.
Tom Savage, a lobbyist for the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, noted that the bill isn’t clear on what constitutes a “substantial violation” in the context of vaccination, which could lead to costly litigation because it’s open to interpretation. The decision as to which injuries will be caused by the vaccine is also unclear, as injuries can result from a variety of independent factors.
“We believe this bill could make taxpayers pay for unsubstantiated claims for damages,” he said.
Serious side effects from the vaccine are incredibly rare. one Case study of a man with sudden onset of non-motor seizures after vaccination was unable to link the two, instead postulating that the condition may have been caused by genetic factors and may be entirely unrelated to the vaccine. A Study of more than 19,500 recently vaccinated adults found the incidence of very serious side effects to be extremely low. Allergic reactions after the first dose occurred in only 0.3% of participants.
Despite scant evidence that the COVID-19 vaccine causes side effects, skepticism about its safety remains. ONE Census Bureau survey found that vaccination hesitancy in Arizona was about 11.1% as of October last year. In a state of more than 7 million, that’s just over 800,000 Arizonans who have reservations about the vaccine. In this subgroup, 58.8% did not trust the vaccines themselves and 50.2% expressed distrust of the government.
Mike Huckins, the chief lobbyist for the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, said approving the bill would have ramifications for local businesses.
“Employees already have help from the trade association,” he said.
HB2043 allows for damages that are in addition to any worker’s compensation the worker may be claiming – it does not preclude access to it. The $500,000 in damages would be a significant financial drain on most companies, Huckins said. The potential damage makes no difference between a business with two people and a business with 5,000 people.
Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, responded by asking whether it was moral to hold someone’s workplace “hostage” until they were vaccinated against their will. Huckins said he recognized very personal beliefs are at stake, but his organization defends employers’ rights. Employees’ religious beliefs are already protected by state laws, he noted.
However, a religious exception does not cover political or philosophical objections to the vaccine – objections that have become increasingly common, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic became politically polarised. A Survey October 2021 found that 60% of unvaccinated individuals identified as Republicans. Nguyen’s HB2043 does not define what a religious exemption is, nor does it solve the problem of what to do with petitions for non-religious reasons.
Nguyen disagreed with Huckins’ claim that the law would have a profound impact on businesses. The bill is not intended to penalize companies, but rather to encourage them to consider requests for religious exemption very seriously.
Other Republicans said they viewed the legislation purely as a punitive measure against corporations — and that’s a good thing.
“Do I think that’s exaggerated? Yes, I think it’s supposed to be like that. It’s supposed to send a message,” Finchem said.
Nguyen brought up the concerns of the hospitals and waved across the room to his Democratic colleagues on the committee, all four of whom wore masks.
“If you look over there, everyone is wearing a mask – it doesn’t prohibit them from working today,” he said.
He compared this to hospitals and medical staff using personal protective equipment or PPE such as masks. Nguyen questioned why hospitals couldn’t be satisfied with implementing PPE guidelines instead of requiring vaccinations and ignoring religious exceptions – requirements of the US Supreme Court confirmed earlier this month. Hospitals could instead require staff to wear two masks or two pairs of gloves.
“Why not create an environment where they can keep working and not lose their income, their livelihood?” asked Nguyen.
Rep. Shawnna Bolick, R-Phoenix, asked if the Phoenix Chamber is tracking how many religious exceptions have been denied. Huckins replied that it was not.
Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry lobbyist Courtney Coolidge echoed Huckins’ concerns.
“Legislation that provides new ways to sue companies during the pandemic is reversing course and damaging the policy advances we’ve made so far,” she said, citing a bill previously raised as worrisome.
Rep. Melody Hernandez, D-Tempe, had identified a potential conflict with last year’s Senate Act 1377, which protects businesses from lawsuits related to damages caused by the pandemic. Committee staff said they were looking into the matter.
Lawmakers, Coolidge said, have already decided to keep claims for damages related to the pandemic under the workers’ compensation program. This new bill would instead add another system for claims to fall under and double the potential impact on businesses.
Committee members shared their thoughts on the bill before voting 6-4 to approve it. Members who voted in favor specifically emphasized their support for small businesses.
Rep. Domingo DeGrazia, D-Tucson, voted against the bill due to structural issues and historical conflicts. the Brush & Nib Studio vs. City of Phoenix Case in which a company refused to provide custom invitations for same-sex weddings set a precedent for private companies to create rules that best suit them, he said. He added that the US Supreme Court’s recent ruling partially upheld an employer’s right to enforce vaccination regulations.
Committee Chair Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, and Vice Chair Jacqueline Parker, R-Mesa, both cited the Constitution in their statements. Blackman said the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects the religious rights of all citizens, and Parker said the bill helped enshrine their “sacred” First Amendment rights.
Nguyen said the CDC had reported one million vaccine side effects and 21,000 deaths. These are actually incorrectly presented CDC data about adverse events. This information comes from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS, available on the CDC website — but anyone can submit an uncorroborated side effect claim to the system. The number of deaths, meanwhile, is compounded by the fact that healthcare providers are required to report any post-vaccination death to the VAERS system, even when there was clearly no link, as in the case of a heart attack or car accident.
“I’m pro-business, but someone has to be held accountable for these injuries,” Nguyen said.
This article originally appeared in the Arizona Mirror, a non-profit online news outlet.