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Utah lawmakers approve a bill that gives employees broad exemptions from workplace vaccine mandates

Photo of people holding handwritten posters that say "I'd rather die of covid than lose American Freedom," "Coercion is not consent," "Save Jobs, Stop Jabs," and "No Mandate."
Emily Means
Dozens of people came to the Capitol this week in support of Sen. Kirk Cullimore’s bill.

Employees who don’t want to comply with their workplace’s COVID-19 vaccine requirements just got some cover from the Utah Legislature.

The new bill, which passed mostly along party lines during this week’s Special Session, still lets employers require vaccines, but the mandates are basically toothless.

Employees have three options — a medical or religious exemption or one for sincerely held personal beliefs. The bill also prevents business owners from firing workers who take advantage of those exemptions and directs businesses to pay for workplace COVID-19 testing if required.

Some workplaces are left out of the bill, like federal contractors, organizations that provide Medicare and Medicaid services and businesses with fewer than 15 employees.

The sponsor, Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, said he started working on the issue months ago when some businesses were starting to mandate vaccines.

“We want to respect the rights of businesses, but we also recognize that employees are not the property of their employers,” Cullimore said. “We need to respect the rights of employees to make medical decisions that are best for them and their families.”

In the background, though, is the Biden administration’s test-or-vaccinate mandate, which has been temporarily blocked due to a federal court decision. Utah leaders have said they’re committed to fighting the president’s policy.

Currently, around 60% of eligible Utahns are fully vaccinated.

Rep. Tim Hawkes, R-Centerville, opposed the new bill for butting into business practices in an unprecedented way.

“Our state is an at-will employment state. That means you can quit or be fired at any time, or for any reason, and there’s very few exceptions to this rule,” Hawkes said. “We just don’t try to micromanage things in this space. We just don’t.”

Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, called the legislation “anti-business.”

“It’s not helping our economy. It really is putting [businesses] in a difficult place,” Escamilla said.

But at least one business leader in the state said he doesn’t mind the legislative involvement.

Curtis Blair, president of the Utah Valley Chamber of Commerce, said he actually views it as a way to push business owners to understand the needs of their employees.

“At the end of the day, those businesses really do have to watch the policies that they implement and how they impact the bottom line,” Blair said. “Your greatest asset [is] your people, and businesses that overlook that their people are the greatest asset probably have bigger problems than the vaccine to figure out.”

The bill is now waiting on Gov. Spencer Cox’s approval.

Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
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