West Virginia House passes COVID vaccine exemption bill

House Minority Whip Shawn Fluharty rails against a bill that would grant broad exemptions to COVID-19 vaccines for public and private employees. (Photo courtesy of WV Legislative Photography)

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia House of Delegates passed a last-minute COVID-19 vaccination exemption bill Friday morning after more than two hours of debate, sending the bill to the state Senate where there is pressure from business and healthcare groups to block the bill.

The House passed House Bill 335 in a vote of 68-30 with nine Republicans joining the Democratic minority in opposing the bill, including House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay.

HB 335 would allow for medical and religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates put in place by employers. Public and private sector employees would be able to provide employers a certificate signed by a licensed physician or advanced practical registered nurse either showing that a medical issue prevents vaccination, or the employee has antibodies from a previous COVID-19 infection.

Employees seeking a religious exemption would be required to show a notarized certificate to the employer stating that the employee or new hire has religious beliefs that prevent them from taking the vaccine. The bill would prohibit employers from firing, hiring, withholding bonuses, pay raises, or promotions any employee who refuses a COVID-19 vaccine.

House Majority Leader Amy Summers, R-Taylor, was the lead sponsor of the bill, introduced on behalf of Gov. Jim Justice late Wednesday night. Summers said the bill is meant to give support and guidance to both employees and their employers.

“I’m pro-vaccine. My colleagues and I stepped up in December to be some of the first to take the vaccine, and I do think it’s been beneficial in decreasing the severity of the disease,” Summers said. “We find ourselves in a position with this bill where we’re being characterized either for business or for the worker … shouldn’t we be for both? Why can’t we just have two exemptions?”

Summers and other Republican delegates said the exemptions were needed in order to keep certain industries, including healthcare, from losing workers who quit or are fired for refusing to be vaccinated.

“To me, this is about listening to my constituents who elected me; my co-workers and fellow healthcare personnel who have been fighting the good fight for almost two years,” said Summers, an emergency room nurse who came down with a breakthrough COVID-19 infection recently. “We’re tired. We want to be heard. We want to be valued and not cast aside because we have concerns about a vaccine.”

“Units are already understaffed. We have limited-experience nurses at the bedside,” said Del. Heather Tully, R-Nicholas, who also works as a registered nurse. “By ensuring we lay off or terminate these people who had vaccine exemption denials, is that the best way to ensure we provide care for the residents of this state? I think not.”

Many Democratic lawmakers in the House rose in opposition to the bill, citing statements from the business and healthcare community warning that HB 335 could interfere with federal labor laws and other forthcoming guidance on vaccines. President Joe Biden’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration is also prepared to issue guidance on vaccine mandates for businesses with more than 100 employees.

House Minority Leader Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, said lawmakers received a letter Friday from the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce and signed by more than 50 large businesses and healthcare organizations warning about negative consequences to passing HB 335, including taking away decision-making authority from private businesses.

“I’m not against exemptions … but I have a list of 50 businesses here in the last 24 hours, major employers in West Virginia, against this bill,” Skaff said. “The bottom line here is this: we have the Chamber of Commerce and every business entity in this state … every one of them reached out to me and said, ‘what are you guys doing up there?’ This is a slippery slope.”

House Minority Whip Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, pointed out that the state has lost 4,108 West Virginians to COVID-19. Since the state started doing vaccinations in December 2020, more than 92 percent of deaths have been unvaccinated West Virginians.

“We’re here today to empower those who remain unvaccinated, who want to harm their neighbors,” Fluharty said. “It’s not how West Virginians want to do things. We like to look out for each other and our neighbors. That’s not what this legislation does.”

Justice addressed the complaints brought by the business community to his bill during Friday’s COVID-19 briefing.

“I think we should follow the law, and that’s what we’re doing,” Justice said, referring to similar medical and religious exemptions granted by the military. “I don’t believe that, really and truly, we should just throw our freedoms … in the trash can.”

The governor said he consulted with many people on the subject, and he does not “think this will be a catalyst that will cause us lots and lots and lots of problems.”

Reporter Evan Bevins contributed to this story.

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com


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