Kansas Legislature adopts bill with expanded vaccine exemptions, unemployment benefits

Gov. Laura Kelly pledges to sign bill approved by GOP-led House, Senate

by Tim Carpenter and Sherman Smith, Kansas Reflector

Topeka — The Kansas Legislature completed a 14-hour special session Monday night by sending Gov. Laura Kelly a bill packed with generous medical, religious and philosophical exemptions to federal COVID-19 vaccination mandates and the potential of state unemployment benefits to people fired for refusing to be inoculated.

As legislators were voting on the measure, the Democratic governor issued a brief statement saying she would sign the bill when it reached her desk.

The House and Senate began the day by adopting rival bills in response to President Joe Biden’s nationwide order requiring vaccination of millions of federal employees, contractors, health care workers and people employed at large companies. In an unusually short meeting in the evening, six negotiators representing the House and Senate hammered out a deal that incorporated the House version of exemptions and Senate provisions on jobless benefits.

The Senate affirmed the decision on a vote of 24-11, while the House completed the process on a vote of 77-34.

The final version was watered down by dropping a Senate amendment forbidding Kansas businesses from imposing vaccination requirements on employees and an amendment banning discrimination against workers based on vaccination status. The settlement deleted a 2023 sunset of the law and retained a severability clause to preserve the bill if portions were successfully challenged in court.

In addition, the package would funnel civil fines as high as $50,000 paid by businesses for violation of the law to the state’s unemployment fund rather than the general treasury.

Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, and Rep. John Barker, R-Abilene, lead negotiators for the Senate and House, exchanged a couple of offers on behalf of their bipartisan three-person negotiating teams before landing on middle ground. The four GOP members embraced the compromise, while both Democrats rejected the pact.

“In the greater scheme of things,” Masterson said, “we have to stay focused on the priority, which is protecting those people right now that could be losing their jobs.”

Kelly announced opposition to Biden’s vaccination mandates before scheduling the unprecedented special session, which was the first in state history to be triggered by petitions signed by senators and representatives.

Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, D-Lenexa, said the bill wouldn’t provide the job security sought by people who believe vaccination by government order to be tyranny.

“They think they’re safe, and they don’t have to get a vaccination,” she said. “It’s not going to change anything for them.”

Rep. Vic Miller, a Topeka Democrat, said the legislation was structured so that nobody will have to claim unemployment. Workers won’t have a reason to quit, he said, because Republicans who wrote the bill “built a hole so big that you can’t avoid driving through it when you exercise your religious exemption.”

“Frankly, I don’t think anybody is going to ultimately qualify for unemployment,” Miller said. “It’s a pretend thing, to pretend that they care about these people. It’s — it’s bulls***.”

Miller said the governor’s staff encouraged him to agree to the deal negotiated between Senate and House members, but he refused. The legislation is “a scam,” he said, that allows anybody who is “just slightly smart enough to apply for the exemption” to avoid complying with a vaccine mandate.

“All they have to do is sign a phony statement that they believe the devil is their religion, and therefore they qualify,” Miller said.

Several Democrats worried about how they should explain their opposition to a bill signed by the Democratic governor.

“That does not help us when the governor is doing one thing, and we’re doing the other,” said Rep. Annie Kuether, D-Topeka.

Miller replied with a wry reference to a directive the governor’s chief of staff, Will Lawrence, gave to former health secretary Lee Norman, as revealed in a Kansas Reflector story last week.

“I think it’s important we stay in our lane,” Miller said.

Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat, said the legislation will require employers to choose between keeping their federal contracts and complying with state law. He joked there was only one reason to vote for the bill: The Kansas Chamber opposes it. Several Democrats said they would look forward to receiving checks from the chamber for supporting businesses, a sarcastic remark about an organization that spends heavily on GOP candidates.

Carmichael predicted major employers that already have implemented mandates will stand by them.

“We will find ourselves over at the federal courthouse as soon as the governor autographs this,” Carmichael said. “Before the ink is even dry, we will have more litigation, and in the meantime, people who think that the Kansas Legislature has saved their job will find themselves on the street.”

The long debates

Anti-vaxxers filled House and Senate galleries and hosted a Statehouse rally Monday to remind legislators of their irritation with Biden’s executive order during the pandemic. In the House, they were repeatedly admonished for jeering, applauding or coughing on the lawmakers below. People opposed to any form of vaccination mandate dominated the joint House and Senate committee hearings on purported government overreach.

“We know that there’s some of you that think it doesn’t go far enough,” said Senate Majority Leader Larry Alley, Republican from Winfield. “This bill protects liberty and protects individual freedom, and keeps Kansans working and protects our religious beliefs.”

GOP Rep. John Eplee, a primary care physician from Atchison, rained on the anti-vaxxers’ political parade by declaring the vaccine “incredibly safe and very prudent to give to our patients.”

So far, COVID-19 has contributed to the deaths of 6,643 and hospitalizations of 15,490 since March 2020 in Kansas. The state has seen 458,000 people with confirmed cases of COVID-19.

“Ladies and gentlemen, if you think we’re going to be done with the virus through this bill or through other things, you’re fooling yourself,” Eplee said. “This virus doesn’t care if you’re a Democrat or Republican, and this virus isn’t done with us. It’s going to continue to percolate along.”

The negotiated compromise excluded the amendment passed by the Senate banning employers in Kansas from adopting COVID-19 vaccination mandates without consent of the Legislature. It was an idea of Sen. Dennis Pyle, a Hiawatha Republican.

“My rights don’t start with the employer,” Pyle said. “Employees feel like they’re being punched in the nose. This says, ‘Merry Christmas for everybody,’ you have a job.”

Business of COVID

The Kansas Chamber issued a statement opposing the COVID-19 legislation, placing it at rare odds with Republican lawmakers. During floor debate in the House, Democrats seized the opportunity to chastise Republicans for proposing legislation that would hurt businesses.

Rep. Rui Xu, D-Westwood, pointed out 14 references to the word “shall” in the three-page House version. In other words, the Legislature responded to a federal mandate with a state mandate.

“If this is not a mandate, what is it?” Xu said. “And if this is not an expansion of government, what is it?”

The labor department plans to approve unemployment benefits for individuals fired from their job because of a vaccine mandate, depending on circumstances of each case.

Sen. Jeff Longbine, an Emporia Republican who owns an auto dealership with 40 employees, said he was opposed to federal vaccination mandates but would prefer constitutional challenges play out in court rather than adopt a series of disjointed responses in the 50 state legislatures.

Employers who ignore either federal or state directives on vaccinations risk financial penalties from either level of government, he said.

“This puts Kansas small business in a very, very difficult situation,” Longbine said. “My biggest concern is we’re giving employers around the state a false sense of security.”

Kansas Reflector stories, www.kansasreflector.com, may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.
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Kansas Senate passes modified version of vaccination exemption, unemployment bill

Chamber adopts ban on businesses imposing vaccination mandates on workers

by Tim Carpenter, Kansas Reflector

Topeka — The Kansas Senate struggled with a series of amendments Monday before passing a bill defining wide religious and medical exemptions to federal COVID-19 vaccination mandates and extending state unemployment assistance to people fired for refusing inoculations.

The faith-based exception to executive orders issued by President Joe Biden would be broad enough in the Senate bill to cover organized religious perspectives and informal individual inclinations — even the declarations of cult members. The exemption on medical grounds would be equally as sweeping and cover all people holding a job, even individuals not subject to by Biden’s orders.

Under the Senate’s bill passed 25-13, a system would be developed to allow employees fired after failing to secure medical or religious exemptions from their employer to qualify for state unemployment benefits.

Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, said he was skeptical the Kansas House would welcome the Senate’s adjustments to the COVID-19 bill. He said the strategy was to adopt a Senate position rebuffing Biden with as much GOP support as possible and begin negotiations with the House on a deal. The House approved its alternative, which sidestepped the unemployment piece and other provisions endorsed by senators, by a vote of 78-40.

Masterson didn’t prohibit Senate amendments to the bill, but he appealed to colleagues to remember the 2022 Legislature would convene in January to continue consideration of COVID-19 legislation. The federal mandates imposed by Biden are unconstitutional, he said, but the ongoing court battles won’t be resolved quickly enough to serve people at jeopardy of losing jobs.

“The primary goal of the special session is to protect those individuals that are right now in the crosshairs,” Masterson said.

Talking about amendments

Hours into the Senate’s floor debate, Masterson recommended the chamber shelve Senate Bill 1. The Senate then took up House Bill 2001, which had been minted in the House, and the Senate executed a gut-and-go. All contents of the House bill were deleted and provisions of Senate Bill 1 were inserted. At that point, Masterson opened up the floor to amendments.

Sen. Dennis Pyle, a Hiawatha Republican, won approval for an amendment banning employers in Kansas from adopting COVID-19 vaccination mandates without consent of the Legislature. It passed 28-7.

“My rights don’t start with the employer,” Pyle said. “Employees feel like they’re being punched in the nose. This says, ‘Merry Christmas for everybody,’ you have a job.”

Ellinwood GOP Sen. Alicia Straub proposed an amendment that would add COVID-19 status to race, color, sex, national origin and other categories for which employers can’t discriminate against people in Kansas. She said allowing employers to ask workers their vaccination status for COVID-19 was discriminatory.

“It is well past time we do something,” said Straub, who became emotional while speaking to the Senate. “I apologize for my emotion.”

Masterson challenged the amendment by asserting it wasn’t germane to the underlying bill. His challenge was upheld by the Senate rules committee and by a vote of the Senate. Republicans and Democrats opposed consideration of Straub’s amendment.

Eventually, Straub retooled her ban on employer discrimination based on COVID-19 vaccination status into language that was benign enough to gain bipartisan support.

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, the Republican representing Sedgwick, proposed an amendment requiring railroad companies to allow on-call employees time off work to get COVID-19 vaccinations. Her intent was to protect workers from being penalized for leaving work for that purpose, but it also was ruled not germane to the Senate’s basic coronavirus bill.

Business quandary

Prior to the special session, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly announced her objection to the Biden vaccination orders. She was required to call the Legislature back to Topeka after more than 100 House and Senate members signed a petition requesting opportunity to take up COVID-19 bills. None of the previous special legislative sessions in Kansas relied upon this petition mechanism.

Opposition to provisions of the Senate bill bubbled up during the Senate Republican caucus and continued on the Senate floor when the measure was opened up to bipartisan review by all 40 members.

Sen. Jeff Longbine, an Emporia Republican who owns an auto dealership with 40 employees, said he was opposed to federal vaccination mandates but concerned about shape of the Senate’s response. He’d prefer constitutional challenges to federal mandates be allowed to play out in court rather than adopt a series of disjointed responses in the 50 state legislatures.

Employers who ignore either federal or state directives on vaccinations risk financial penalties from either level of government, he said.

“This puts Kansas small business in a very, very difficult situation,” Longbine said. “My biggest concern is we’re giving employers around the state a false sense of security.”

Sen. Tom Holland, who operates a Baldwin City business tied to federal contracts, said the Biden vaccination mandate was misguided. He said the proposed Senate legislation would create “chaos” for employers uncertain of what to do when confronted by workers who apply for a vaccination exemption. In addition, he said, there should be an acknowledgement the right to bodily autonomy applied to vaccinations as well as abortions.

“That is your decision, and government needs to stay the heck out of it,” Holland said.

Sen. Mark Steffen, a Hutchinson Republican and physician, said Senate bill was a step in the right direction. He pushed back against opposition from the Kansas Chamber and other business lobbying groups by declaring the intent was to reinforce individual rights when considering a medical procedure. It’s just as wrong to require women employees to be on birth control as it is to mandate vaccinations, he said.

The apprehension expressed by business organizations shouldn’t carry the day because rights of the individual always trump rights asserted by businesses, he said.

“Business rights are pretend,” Steffen said. “They don’t really exist.”

Kansas Reflector stories, www.kansasreflector.com, may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.


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Kansas House passes bill allowing moral, medical, religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccines

Businesses who question beliefs or retaliate could face fines up to $50K through complaints to labor department

by Sherman Smith, Kansas Reflector

Topeka — Rep. John Eplee, a Republican primary care physician from Atchison, shot down fears of the COVID-19 vaccine in a speech Monday on the House floor.

Several other Republicans raised concerns about the safety and efficiency of the vaccine during debate over a bill expanding the ways workers can opt out of COVID-19 vaccine mandates and punishing businesses who question their beliefs. The House passed the bill by a 78-40 vote, setting up negotiations with the Senate to iron out differences in competing bills.

Anti-vaxxers packed the gallery overlooking the House chamber for this historic special session debate, and were repeatedly admonished for jeering, applauding or coughing on the lawmakers below.

“There is no doubt in my mind as a practicing, living, breathing, primary care physician that this vaccine is incredibly safe and very prudent to give to our patients,” Eplee said.

Eplee said he personally has ordered the vaccine for at least several hundred patients and has not seen any serious side effects. He dismissed frequently debunked misinformation based on unverified reports collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Environment.

His little hospital is now filling up again with COVID-19 patients again, Eplee said, and every single one of them is unvaccinated.

“Ladies and gentlemen, if you think we’re going to be done with the virus through this bill or through other things, you’re fooling yourself,” Eplee said. “This virus doesn’t care if you’re a Democrat or Republican, and this virus isn’t done with us. It’s going to continue to percolate along. It’s going to find vulnerable, unvaccinated and vaccine-vulnerable people.”

Eplee said he wasn’t thrilled with the House bill but, in deference to some of those in the gallery, he explained that he would support the legislation — so long as it doesn’t change after negotiations with the Senate — because he believes in his constituents.

GOP leaders in advance of the special session prepared last-minute updates to proposed exemptions previously outlined during meetings of a special overreach committee. The House passed a bill that would allow employees to claim an exemption on moral grounds, in addition to medical reasons or sincerely held religious beliefs.

The House version of the bill doesn’t provide unemployment benefits for individuals who don’t want to get vaccinated against the deadly disease, a key difference from the Senate version.

In the House bill, businesses are not allowed to question employees about the exemptions. Employees can file a grievance with the Kansas Department of Labor if they are denied an exemption or allege retaliation. The agency is required to investigate those complaints and within 25 days turn over findings to the attorney general, who can then file civil action in court. Small businesses face a fine up to $10,000 for each violation. For businesses with more than 100 employees, the fine can be as high as $50,000. The fines will go to the state, not the employees filing grievances.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman advised House Republicans in a meeting before the session opened to avoid the temptation to add provisions to the bill that “sound good” — a reference to anti-vaxxers who are unhappy the legislation isn’t more extreme — and embrace court-tested language already in the bill.

“This is about federal mandates, not about if a vaccine works or doesn’t work,” Ryckman told reporters Sunday night. “This is about the federal government inserting themselves between someone’s health and their job.”

The House strategy is to secure the exemptions so a broader bill providing for unemployment benefits is unnecessary. The labor department already plans to approve benefits for individuals who have been fired from their job because of a vaccine mandate, depending on circumstances of each case. Employees who quit before they are fired won’t receive benefits — 10 such individuals have already been denied benefits.

In the pre-session meeting, several representatives raised concerns about extending exemptions on the basis of “non-theistic moral and ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong.” Others raised concerns about the prohibition on inquiring about the validity of religious beliefs.

“A lot of people are going to find Jesus, and I think that’s fantastic,” said Rep. Stephen Owens, a Hesston Republican who defended the bill.

The Kansas Chamber issued a statement Monday morning opposing the bill, placing them at rare odds with Republican lawmakers. During floor debate, Democrats seized the opportunity to chastise Republicans for proposing legislation that would hurt businesses.

“Make no mistake: We do not have the support of business of Kansas,” said Rep. Annie Kuether, D-Topeka.

Rep. Rui Xu, D-Westwood, pointed out 14 references to the word “shall” in the three-page bill.

“If this is not a mandate, what is it?” Xu said. “And if this is not an expansion of government, what is it?”

The House bill only applies to COVID-19 vaccines required by employers. It also contains a sunset provision, in which the bill expires after two years. Owens said the hope is the Legislature at that time will remove the “COVID-19” references and finalize a law that applies the exemptions to all types of vaccines.

The special session is a response to a series of federal mandates. A federal court already has suspended a requirement that employees of large businesses to be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing and wear a mask at work. Another mandate applies to employees of Medicaid and Medicare providers, including long-term care facilities. The federal government also requires its own employees to be vaccinated, a measure that extends to federal contractors.

Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, said lawmakers were selling constituents a bill of goods that isn’t true by telling them the law would save their jobs. Federal orders are the law of the land, he said, and any challenges to them will be decided in court.

“What we do here won’t change that,” Carmichael said.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican who is running for governor in next year’s election, told House Republicans in a meeting Sunday night that the best recourse for Kansas employees are the lawsuits he has joined to challenge the federal mandates.

“The one thing I can say with confidence is that if we succeed in these three lawsuits, that is the best and most certain way to ensure that those three federal mandates … do not have legal effect in Kansas and therefore avoids all the types of questions,” Schmidt said.

Kansas Reflector stories, www.kansasreflector.com, may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

See more at https://kansasreflector.com/2021/11/22/kansas-house-passes-bill-allowing-moral-medical-religious-exemptions-to-covid-19-vaccines/.