SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly 700 people turned out to a legislative hearing on whether Utah should fight a proposed federal rule to impose a COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
The crowd packed the Utah State Legislature's Business & Labor Interim Committee and five separate overflow rooms on Capitol Hill to speak against the proposed occupational safety rule from President Biden's administration to require businesses with over 100 employees to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine or regular testing. The hearing, which lasted three-and-a-half hours included public comment from some against vaccines overall, demands that lawmakers to stand up against "tyranny" and fears of job losses or discrimination against those who are unvaccinated.
"I might not have a job at the end of this month," a man told the committee.
One woman said her husband was expecting to lose his job if he didn't comply with a federal vaccine requirement.
"We have made our decision as a family. We will walk away from a job my husband has worked so hard for in order to stand up for our liberty," she said.
Others complained that the proposed rule didn't take into account people who had already contracted COVID-19 and recovered, giving them some immunity to it.
Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, one of the committee chairs, kept rigid decorum in the hearing and even warned the crowd ahead of time that he would not tolerate disruptions. It was in response to a similar hearing on business vaccine mandates last month in the Health & Human Services Interim Committee where a sometimes unruly crowd heckled a lawmaker, who is also a physician treating COVID-19 patients.
People who testified kept to a one-minute time limit, but Monday's committee hearing was overwhelmingly against the Biden administration's plans. Only a handful of people spoke in favor of it, with some testifying online and expressing concerns about the virus and the unmasked, unvaccinated crowd at the Capitol.
Ben Hart, the deputy director of the Governor's Office of Economic Opportunity, told the committee that employers have had some mixed feelings on the issue. They want employees vaccinated, but don't really support a government mandate.
"By and large most everyone likes the idea of people getting vaccinated. I think everyone is supportive in trying to get people vaccinated as well. The question is what is a mandate, what does it look like and how is it going to impact their labor supply?" he said.
Legislative staffers said they estimated roughly 3% of companies in Utah would be impacted by the proposed rule. However, those companies represent 65% of the employment base. Some of those employers said they feared they would lose employees at a time when labor is already tight.
"If we were to mandate the vaccine or these intrusive testing measures, we could lose upwards of 30% of our critical workforce," said Spencer Young II, the head of the Morgan-based Young Automotive Group.
Rob Moore, the CEO of Big D Construction, told the committee his company was "100% in favor of vaccination, but we are not in favor of mandating."
But Utah's refusal to comply with the rule could get it in trouble with the federal government. The Utah Labor Commission testified that the state is one that manages its own occupational safety agency with matching dollars from the federal government. They have previously bucked the federal government on a COVID-related rule.
"I think you can only tell the federal government no so many times," testified Utah Labor Commissioner Jaceson Maughan.
The rule has yet to be made public since President Biden proposed it. However, the Utah Attorney General's Office testified that it was already prepared to file a lawsuit once it goes into effect. Utah Solicitor General Melissa Holyoak said she believed the state would prevail.
"We’re confident in our legal arguments," she said.
With no rule proposed, Rep. Joel Ferry, R-Brigham City, said there was little the Utah State Legislature could do at this point.
"There’s no bill file open at this point, we really will need to see what comes of the federal government before we can make those decisions," he told reporters after the hearing.
Governor Spencer Cox and some Republican legislative leaders have said that while they oppose a government mandate, they do not oppose businesses on their own mandating their employees get the COVID-19 vaccine. Gov. Cox told reporters last week he would veto any bill that proposed to block businesses that chose to impose a vaccine requirement.