Gov. Cox signs bill on workplace COVID-19 vaccine exemptions, record-keeping into law

Posted at 9:56 PM, Nov 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-17 00:00:25-05

SALT LAKE CITY — One of 10 bills signed into law by Utah Governor Spencer Cox on Tuesday requires employers to allow COVID-19 vaccine exemptions while prohibiting any adverse action against employees who submit for exemption.

S.B. 2004 indicates that an employee can now submit a statement to their employer seeking exemption for medical, religious, or sincerely held personal belief. It prohibits any adverse action taken against an employee who submits for exemption.

“For the time being, we think we’ve struck a good balance, but there’s probably issues that will need to be looked at, even going into the general session,” said Senator Kirk Cullimore (R-Sandy), who sponsored the bill.

The bill now requires employers to pay for COVID-19 testing and prohibits employers from keeping or maintaining records or copies of an employee’s proof of vaccination. However, they may require an employee or prospective employee to receive or show proof of vaccination if the employer “employs fewer than 15 employees and establishes a nexus between the requirement and the employee’s assigned duties and responsibilities.”

“It seems to me that the solution to one mandate shouldn’t be another mandate, for starters. We respond to a federal mandate with a mandate of our own. Caught in the middle is really Utah individuals and businesses [who] could be subject to conflicting mandates,” said Rep. Timothy Hawkes (R-Centerville). “I just feel like those decisions are best managed between employers and employees, without the state stepping in and sort of dictating the terms of that agreement to them.”

Attorney Bryan Benard works directly with local employers and feels the new law creates a tug-of-war between federal and state government while putting businesses directly in the middle of it.

“It’s been 18 months of chaos for most employers — trying to deal with the pandemic, trying to comply with nearly weekly mandates and guidelines coming out from either the EEOC or the Department of Labor or the CDC or OSHA. Now, federal protective orders and now state legislation,” said Benard, a partner at Holland and Hart. “I don’t think the intent was for this, but I’d be worried that this law instantly puts a lot of employers out of compliance even though they’re in compliance with all the federal laws.”

Benard is concerned that the sudden change in vaccination record-keeping could cause many businesses to immediately fall into non-compliance after nearly two years of ever-changing guidelines and rules.

“If the vaccinations aren’t required, can’t be required, and if the testing was the alternative, that puts the burden not on the person who has the personal belief against vaccination to pay for the testing to safe around other employees, [but] it puts it squarely on the businesses and businesses. That could be a tremendous expense to their bottom line,” said Benard.

While religious and medical exemptions come up in more conversations about COVID-19 vaccines in the workplace, the new law suggests that a statement of personal belief is now enough for employers to permit exemption.

“There is no guidance whatsoever on what a sincerely held personal belief is,” said Benard.

“The thought was that this personal exemption would encompass that natural immunity exemption if the medical exemption didn’t apply in that same instance,” said Sen. Cullimore when asked about the personal belief exemption. Cullimore says this law has no expiration or sunset, but he anticipates it’ll be discussed again on Capitol Hill as more things evolve.