A small group of Republican lawmakers have introduced over 30 bills ahead of the 2022 legislative session to curb employer vaccine mandates and give legal protections to Oklahomans who refuse them.
While proposals to outlaw vaccine mandates in the state didn’t get a hearing last year, GOP lawmakers are now taking a more nuanced approach by proposing penalties on employers and expanding privacy protections instead of outright bans. Some lawmakers hope this new strategy could mean a better chance of getting their bills heard when the Oklahoma Legislature convenes in February.
Some of the bills wouldn’t just apply to COVID-19 vaccines, but any vaccine. Several of the lawmakers who filed these bills are up for reelection this year.
House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said legislation to limit vaccine mandates could advance this session.
“There is strong House support for advancing legislation on vaccine mandates, by both governments and employers,” McCall said in a statement to The Frontier. “The legislative process will determine the details of what advances from the many and varied approaches proposed.”
Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, declined to comment on whether he would support legislation to ban or limit employer vaccine mandates.
Oklahoma Sen. David Bullard, R-Durant, filed a bill last year to ban private employers from implementing vaccine mandates. But the bill didn’t go anywhere after medical professionals, business owners and other lawmakers pushed back.
Bullard has returned this legislative session with two new bills he believes will receive wider support. The first would not allow any state agency, city, school district or businesses contracting with the state to require a COVID-19 vaccine or discriminate against someone if they are unvaccinated. The other bill would require employers to allow workers exemptions from mandates or disclosing their vaccination status.
Bullard said employers shouldn’t be able to ask if a worker is vaccinated.
Several bills filed before the coming legislative session would prohibit businesses from discriminating against people who are unvaccinated. One bill would add vaccination status to the state’s anti-discrimination statutue that deals with employment.
Federal anti-discrimination laws don’t prevent employers from requiring workers be vaccinated against COVID-19, though there are reasonable accommodations and other equal employment considerations, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“People expect us to protect their rights, but they also want to make sure we don’t go too far one way or another,” Bullard said. “We’re going to push for as strong of protections of rights as we can possibly get, and we’ll see where we land from there.”
There are a handful of proposed bills that would totally ban vaccine mandates, but most of the bills propose penalties, legal liabilities or restrictions on what employers or state agencies can say or do regarding vaccines or vaccination status.
One bill would allow employers to mandate vaccines, but workers could sue for $1 million in damages if they have adverse reactions. Other bills would allow people to receive unemployment benefits if they are fired for refusing vaccines.
At least three bills would expand worker exemptions for employer-imposed vaccine mandates. One of the bills would allow workers to refuse vaccination requirements on any grounds.
Employers are already required to provide exemptions and accommodations to workers who are unable to get vaccinations due to medical issues or religious beliefs. But objections to the COVID-19 vaccine for social or political preferences do not qualify, according to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Lawmakers have also filed a handful of shell bills on vaccine mandates — blank placeholders that can be revised during the legislative session. And dozens of vaccination bills filed last year are also still eligible to be heard.
Some legislators have blamed vaccine mandates for worker shortages and say such requirements violate constitutional rights.
It’s unclear that worker shortages, particularly in health care, are because of vaccine mandates, said Jane Nelson, CEO of the Oklahoma Nurses Association. Oklahoma’s shortage of nurses predates the pandemic by several years. Burnout, low pay, lack of educational opportunities and staffing shortages from surges in COVID cases have all contributed, Nelson said.
“You have to look at the whole thing. You cannot just blame the vaccine on why nurses are leaving the bedside. They are leaving because they are exhausted and frustrated,” she said. “Anything that we have done to try to mitigate this disease, there are people out there that don’t want to do that. And I think that really hurts nursing care.”
One national study of nurses’ mental health conducted last fall included over 70 Oklahoma nurses. Nearly half said they had experienced a stressful, disturbing or traumatic event due to COVID, and 82 percent said they had been vaccinated.
Two lawmakers and an anti-vaccine-mandate group also gave this example: Businesses can require an employee to wear goggles on the job for safety reasons, but employees can take off those goggles at the end of their shift.
Sen. Blake Stephens, R-Tahlequah, said employees can’t reverse getting the vaccine. He’s filed a bill that would exempt current employees from new vaccine mandates.
Medical professionals, business leaders and educational groups say prohibiting private employers from requiring vaccines hinders public health efforts and economic growth.
Mary Clarke, president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association and a family physician in Stillwater, said the association is concerned with the flood of vaccine mandate bills.
The association is currently suing the state over a law enacted last year that bans mask and vaccine mandates at public schools and universities unless there is a state of emergency.
Over 70 percent of people admitted to Oklahoma hospitals because of COVID-19 were unvaccinated, according to the most recent state data. Hospitals administrators have repeatedly warned that COVID surges have strained the state’s ICU bed capacity and have urged Oklahomans to get vaccinated.
“The problem is that we have had a lot of politics come into play,” Clarke said.
Clarke also pointed to a 2021 poll of 500 Oklahomans that found 60 percent believed the government shouldn’t interfere with private businesses’ decision to mandate vaccination.
The Oklahoma State Chamber of Commerce says it opposes attempts by the Legislature to further restrict businesses’ ability to make their own decisions.
“Oklahoma is doing everything it can to push back against unconstitutional federal actions… We must likewise guard against any state legislative-led mandates that go the opposite directions, preventing businesses from making their own rules for unique circumstances,” Chad Warmington, president of the State Chamber, wrote in an editorial earlier this month.
Since some of the bills don’t specifically refer to COVID-19 vaccines, Clarke said it’s possible new legislation could restrict other, long-standing vaccine requirements for hospital staff.
“How safe would you feel walking into a doctor’s office or a hospital knowing that they are unvaccinated for measles, mumps and polio, and your child has to go in and get some sort of open surgery?” she said.
After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal vaccine mandate for businesses with over 100 employees, some lawmakers in Oklahoma rejoiced. But the court allowed a mandate for health care workers that treat patients covered by Medicaid and Medicare to stand.
Oklahoma was one of about a dozen states that had sued the federal government over the mandates. More than a dozen other states currently have some type of prohibition against COVID-19 vaccine mandates, according to a report published Jan. 25 by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
About 20 Republican lawmakers sent a letter to Gov. Kevin Stitt last July asking him to convene a special session or issue an executive order to stop vaccine mandates. Neither happened.
Stitt and other top legislative leaders have consistently said they do not support any government mandates forcing employers to require vaccinations, but they have been less clear about their views on prohibiting private businesses from deciding to require vaccines.
Stitt previously said he believes companies should have the freedom to make vaccine decisions on their own, but his office said he would not comment on the pending legislation.
“Just as I believe Joe Biden can’t tell businesses that they have to mandate a vaccine, I don’t believe the government should tell a company they can’t,” Stitt said in a Twitter video last fall. “Businesses should have the freedom to make decisions based on their circumstances.”
Bullard said he is a “free-market believer,” but thinks the state should get involved in the way employers approach decisions about vaccinations in the workplace.
“I don’t want to inject government into businesses,” he said. “But I want to make sure that we are at the same time protecting someone’s individual liberty and freedoms.”