The West Virginia Legislature should have as a credo its own version of the Hippocratic Oath: Primum non nocere. “First, do no harm.”
The Legislature, meeting in special session primarily to redraw political districts based on new Census figures, was drawn into a debate over mandatory vaccinations. Governor Justice, under pressure from conservative Republicans, had introduced a bill (335) requiring that employers that require Covid-19 vaccinations allow for medical and religious exemptions.
If that standard sounds familiar, it is because it is already required.
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, employers may require employees “physically entering the workplace to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19, subject to reasonable accommodation provisions of Title VII and the ADA and other EEOC considerations.”
Those considerations are spelled out in detail. For example, the EEOC provides specifics to explain what qualifies as a “sincerely held religious belief,” and how an individual can ask for an exemption for one.
These federal laws are not optional. For example, in 2017 a federal court upheld a $600,000 award to an employee of Consol Energy when the company failed to provide a reasonable accommodation for a religious objection.
Meanwhile, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is drafting a rule that will mandate that businesses with at least 100 employees require Covid vaccinations for their workers or submit to weekly Covid tests. (Court challenges to the as-yet release rule are already planned.)
So, in short, this ground is covered, and in some cases, West Virginia businesses—primarily hospitals–have already instituted mandatory vaccines as a condition of employment.
The bill narrowly passed the Senate (17-16). The Republicans, who hold a supermajority, split.
Senator Eric Tarr (R-Putnam) said on the floor that a “yes” vote would “show these health workers and every other worker who wants to make a choice about their own body… that we support their choice to do that.”
However, critics of the bill charge it is so vague it allows for wholesale exemptions, while opening the door to lawsuits against employers who try to require Covid vaccinations.
“This is probably one of the worst, most poorly drafted pieces of legislation I’ve ever read in my life in how it tries to go about what it does,” said Senator Ryan Weld (R-Brooke).
The bill, if it becomes law, does give the supporters something they can use to appease their anti-vax constituents.
But the bill, at its best, does nothing since it will be superseded by federal law. At worst, it causes confusion and consternation among the state’s businesses and hospitals that are trying to figure out what rules to follow and how to properly allow for reasonable exemptions.
Covid has already caused an historic amount of disruption in West Virginia. There is no need for the Legislature to make matters even worse with this bill.