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COVID-19 vaccine exemption bill passes legislature after being watered down

Posted at 2:49 PM, Nov 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-10 21:48:25-05

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that provides more exemptions to workplace COVID-19 vaccine mandates has passed the legislature, but only after being watered down.

Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, modified Senate Bill 2004 after concerns were expressed by business groups. The bill prohibits firing an employee who claims a religious, medical or personal reason to not get the COVID-19 vaccine. Instead, it demands that they be "re-assigned" within the company.

However, the bill was modified on Wednesday to allow for an employee to still be fired for refusing to get vaccinated.

"In some cases, it may just be impossible depending on those particular job duties to reassign," Sen. Cullimore told his Senate colleagues. "If there is no practical reassignment it would not be deemed an adverse action to take recourse."

The bill also left intact a mandate for federal contractors and workers at facilities that take Medicare or Medicaid money.

Senate Democrats still opposed the bill. Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, noted that Utah is an at will state, but now seemingly wants to reverse course in the COVID-19 pandemic. She also said that "I don't want to" qualified as a personal exemption.

The bill passed on a 21-6 vote and now goes to the House of Representatives for a vote in the special session. Utah's political leaders have repeatedly said that while they dislike government vaccine mandates, they do support the rights of private businesses to mandate the vaccine on their own.

But lawmakers have faced pressure, particularly from anti-vaccine activists who have packed legislative hearings to criticize any mandates. The bill may ultimately be moot if Utah loses litigation it is involved with against federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

The House passed an amendment, allowing first responders like police and firefighters to claim an exemption. But exemptions would not apply to University of Utah Health, which was granted a carveout.

"This is not an easy tightrope to walk," Sen. Cullimore said of his bill. "We want to respect the rights of businesses, but we also recognize employees are not the property of employers."