In an extended legislative session intended to focus on re-drawing Arkansas’ four U.S. Congressional districts, lawmakers have instead set their sights on COVID-19 vaccines.
Members of the Arkansas House and Senate have debated numerous proposals aimed at rolling back parts of President Joe Biden’s new vaccine mandates for private businesses. The slate of Republican-backed bills have had varying degrees of success.
The most successful so far has been Senate Bill 739, sponsored by Republican Sen. Kim Hammer of Benton. After successfully passing out of a House committee Tuesday, it now faces a vote in the full House before going to the governor.
The proposal would require employers who mandate vaccines to provide an exemption process for people not choosing to get vaccinated. That could include weekly coronavirus testing, or twice-yearly testing for immunity from the virus.
Speaking before the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor committee Tuesday, Matt Gilmore with the Arkansas Department of Health said that may not be frequent enough to ensure workers aren’t inadvertently spreading COVID-19.
“We don’t really know as far as the time frame as to what length of immunity is with the virus… looking at about 90 days, so every three months is what we looked at at that,” Gilmore said. “We appreciate what the bill is trying to do in some ways, but I think there’s lots of things that need to be answered and fleshed out.”
Under the proposal, the cost of testing would fall on the employee if federal or state funds are not available. The bill would also sunset in 2023 if “no further action” is required.
One of the more hotly debated bills of the session is Senate Bill 732, which ultimately failed before the same committee on Tuesday. That legislation, sponsored by Sen. Blake Johnson, R-Corning, would have provided unemployment benefits to people fired for not complying with a COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
Unlike similar proposals, unemployment payments under Johnson’s bill would be funded by the federal government, specifically the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, instead of the state’s traditional Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund. But state finance officials have said rules prevent those funds from being used for that purpose.
Speaking before the committee, Arkansas Commerce Secretary Mike Preston said those payments would then have to come from the trust fund, which would in turn raise costs for businesses.
“The maximum [unemployment insurance] benefit that someone could realize is $7,216. Typically an average claim is less, about half that, about $3,500. So if roughly 1% of our workforce is impacted on that, that’s 14,000 people,” Preston said. “That’s a range of anywhere from $49 million to $101 million impact that you’re looking at our Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund.”
While all vaccine-related bills this session have faced nearly uniform Democratic opposition, Johnson’s SB732 has caused a split among conservatives in the legislature. Speaking Monday on the Senate floor, Sen. Jim Hendren, I-Gravette, scolded Johnson for that lack of solid funding.
“I think one of the cruelest things we can do is give people this idea that they’re going to get taken care of if they make the decision under this legislation to leave their job, and we know full well that there’s no federal funds that are allocated for that,” Hendren said. “You’ve made promises that you know are unkeepable.”
“It says what it says,” Johnson responded, arguing numerous other bills passed by the legislature do not include definite funding sources. Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, spoke against another part of the bill that would allow workers to opt out of vaccine mandates for religious, philosophical or health reasons.
“At the end of the day, we all have the right to choose whether or not we work somewhere, and if our beliefs agree with those of our employer. If we don’t, then we leave. We find another job,” Dismang said. “What this bill is saying is that if the employer who owns the property, who owns the businesses, put up the capital… if they have a disagreement, that employee’s right trumps that.”
The raft of legislation comes weeks after President Joe Biden announced sweeping new mandates requiring government workers and employees of large businesses to be vaccinated against COVID-19. While some of Arkansas’ largest businesses like Walmart and Tyson Foods have already instituted mandates of their own, Republican lawmakers and members of the public have said the mandates encroach on individual liberties.
Single mother Ashley Vance criticized lawmakers who were unsupportive of SB732 in a committee meeting last Friday.
“I work 12-hour shifts at a plant in Sheridan, Arkansas, and they have told me if I do not receive this vaccination, I will be fired, I will be terminated,” Vance said. “How can you decide for me what’s right for me when you’re not being threatened, when your job’s not being threatened, when your family’s not being threatened?”
Lawmakers have been meeting since last Wednesday following an extended summer recess, in a session intended primarily to address Congressional redistricting. But the leaders of the Arkansas House and Senate have ruled lawmakers can take up measures related to COVID-19 vaccinations, leading to the current political showdown.
While lawmakers have considered some redistricting bills, a number of other bills aimed at rolling back vaccine mandates continue to move through the legislature. At least one, SB739, could gain final approval as soon as this week.