Lawmakers support bill expanding employee exemptions from vaccine mandates

By: - February 24, 2022 3:25 pm
Covid-19 vaccination record card with vials and syringe.

Health and business leaders strongly oppose the expanded vaccine exemptions. (iStock | Getty Images)

A House subcommittee on Thursday approved legislation that would require private and public employers that receive state or federal funding, including pandemic relief, to exempt employees from vaccine mandates if they cite a religious, medical, or moral objection.

And, in a 13-8 vote, the Labor, Industrial, and Rehabilitative Services Committee passed House Bill 1089, which would set aside noncompete agreements if an employee was fired for not complying with medical interventions, testing, or masking mandates.  

Health and business leaders strongly oppose the expanded vaccine exemptions, saying they will essentially render vaccine requirements meaningless. While the full committee did not vote Thursday on House Bill 1210, the 3-2 vote keeps it alive. 

Unlike existing law that allows employers to reject medical and religious exemption requests, this legislation would require them to grant requests without question and adds the “conscientious” or moral objection.

Employers may offer unvaccinated employees an accommodation, such as working remotely, but are not required to. The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Tim Lang, a Sanborton Republican, told the committee an employee can quit or be fired if an agreement cannot be reached. 

“Our patients are highly vulnerable and incredibly complex,” Steve Ahnen, president of the New Hampshire Hospital Association, said in an interview Wednesday. “We have to put in place the evidence-based safety protocols to keep them healthy and safe. Vaccine requirements of our staff is an important means of doing that. This would simply say you can’t do that.” 

The Business and Industry Association told the committee in a letter that the bill’s use of “conscientious objector” is misplaced when applied to vaccine mandates. The association also raised public safety concerns.

“We believe it is bad public policy to put constraints on private sector employers to implement health and safety measures in the workplace they deem necessary to protect their employees and customers,” wrote Dave Juvet, senior vice president of public policy for the association.

Those bills are among several before lawmakers this session that would scale back vaccine mandates in business, health care, and education settings.

In a 176-174 vote, the House recently passed House Bill 1604, which would require county nursing homes and state hospitals to automatically grant the same exemption requests to any vaccine mandate. House Bill 1455 from House Speaker Sherman Packard, a Londonderry Republican, proposes a different approach by prohibiting the state from enforcing federal vaccine mandates, which currently apply to health care sites. That has yet to get a vote.

The committee rejected two other bills that would compensate employees fired for not complying with medical mandates.

House Bill 1377 would award fired workers who cite a mandate when applying for unemployment benefits the regular 26 weeks of payment plus an additional six months of money. Deputy Commissioner Richard Lavers at the Department of Employment Security told the committee last month the bill would be costly to employers. 

Ninety percent of the 134 claims filed as of January that cited a vaccine mandate were denied, Lavers said. Under the bill, the 92 claims from health care workers alone would have cost that industry $1.2 million in unemployment costs, he said.

House Bill 1143 proposes employees fired for refusing any medical mandate receive six months of severance pay equal to two-thirds of their wages and benefits. 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Annmarie Timmins
Annmarie Timmins

Senior reporter Annmarie Timmins is a New Hampshire native who covered state government, courts, and social justice issues for the Concord Monitor for 25 years. During her time with the Monitor, she won a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism and mental health courts at Harvard for a year. She has taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire and writing at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications. Email: [email protected]