Arkansas Lawmakers Ok Opt-Out For Covid Vaccine Mandates

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas lawmakers gave final approval Wednesday to legislation requiring employers to let their workers opt out of getting the COVID-19 vaccine, a move opposed by the state’s Republican governor, business groups and hospitals.

But the proposal faces uncertainty on whether it'll take effect immediately or early next year if it's enacted.

The proposal is among several attempts to limit or prohibit vaccine requirements that have dominated the Legislature's attention during a session that was supposed to focus on congressional redistricting. The proposals came primarily in response to President Joe Biden's order that all employers with more than 100 workers require them to be vaccinated or test for the virus weekly.

The bill's sponsor portrayed it as a way to protect people on the verge of losing their jobs because they refuse to get vaccinated.

“You want to take people that are willing to show up to work, you want to take people that have stuck with you through this entire mess called COVID, and now you want to put them out on the streets?" Republican Sen. Kim Hammer said. “I just don't think that's a mindset I'd want to support."

The proposal requires a process for employees to opt out of vaccine requirements if they are tested weekly for the virus or can prove they have COVID-19 antibodies. Health officials say antibody testing should not be used to assess immunity against the coronavirus and that people who have recovered from COVID-19 should still get vaccinated.

The Senate approved the measure on a 22-12 vote, while the House approved an identical version 61-25.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the state Chamber of Commerce opposed the bill, calling the proposal a mandate itself that would prevent businesses from setting their own vaccination policies.

Some of the state's largest employers, including Bentonville-based Walmart, have mandated vaccinations for some or all employees. Hutchinson earlier this year signed legislation banning vaccine mandates by state and local government entities.

Opponents said the legislation could jeopardize some contracts with firms that won't do business with companies that don't require employee vaccinations.

The state’s hospital association has said the move could also threaten Medicaid and Medicare funding for health care facilities that the Biden administration has required to mandate vaccines.

“Like it or not, this is a mandate on not just these big companies we talk about and say this is the only folks it'll impact," Republican Sen. Jonathan Dismang, who voted against the bill, said. “No, it impacts small business too that are trying weigh all this information out there to make the best decision they can for their customers, their employees, themselves."

The proposal fell short of the two-thirds support needed in the 35-member Senate to approve its emergency clause, which would have allowed it to take effect immediately if enacted. But lawmakers later approved a procedural move that’ll allow another vote on the bill’s effective date. Without the emergency clause, the legislation won’t take effect until 90 days after the Legislature adjourns.

Hutchinson has not said whether he would veto the bill. It takes a simple majority of the House and Senate to override a governor's veto. He has five days, not counting Sundays, after the bill reaches his desk before it becomes law without his signature.

The governor said he's looking at the impact of the bill if it doesn't take effect until early next year. Hutchinson said he planned to talk with the U.S. Department of Labor to see how it fits with the rules being developed for the president's vaccine order.

“I've got some work to do in those communications to learn more as to whether that bill is manageable and whether it places an undue burden on businesses that would be unacceptable," he told reporters.

A state judge on Wednesday blocked a northwest Arkansas school district's requirement that students and teachers wear masks to stop the spread of COVID-19. Benton County Circuit Judge Xollie Duncan granted the request by some parents who challenged the Bentonville School District's mandate.

The parents argued that the district did not have the authority to require masks.

Bentonville was among more than 100 public school districts and charter schools that adopted mask requirements after a judge in August blocked an Arkansas law banning mask mandates. The state Supreme Court last week declined to stay that ruling while it considers the state's appeal.