New legislation championed by some Michigan House Republicans and people spreading misinformation would prevent employers from requiring employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and other diseases, to wear masks in the workplace or to disclose their vaccination status.
The measure, HB 4471, flies in the face of guidance from state and national health officials: The majority of doctors and scientists agree vaccines and masks save lives. But the bill was bolstered by a series of speakers during a legislative committee meeting Thursday who offered a string of conspiracy theories about vaccines and the pandemic.
Their claims, made during a public hearing also streamed online, went largely unchallenged by anyone on the committee.
The lead bill sponsor, state Rep. Sue Allor, R-Wolverine, argued her measure is crucial to protect employees.
“Many believe that government is too intrusive, and I would agree with that statement. But that’s not to say that government hasn’t already inserted itself into business operations. Do two wrongs make a right? Absolutely not,” Allor said.
“The bottom line, as it pertains to this bill: There is precedent for government creating laws and rules that an employer must follow. And that is what this bill is requesting — a statute that will prevent an employer from discriminating or retaliating against employees who choose to not take a vaccine.”
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Lawmakers did not vote on the measure on Thursday, but it is expected to pass if it comes up for a vote in the future.
The bill is the latest effort by GOP lawmakers to ban the implementation of any vaccine or mask mandates in society. It comes as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the country and Michigan health experts predict an oncoming surge in the state.
Recently, the House passed a bill that would ban any state-instituted vaccine passport system. Although Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and state health officials have repeatedly said they are not currently considering such a requirement, the state does require masks for state employees working on-site.
A slew of businesses and universities have already instituted such rules as the state prepares for another pandemic surge. Hospital systems, including Beaumont, Ascension Health and Trinity Health already require employees to be vaccinated and wear masks. The University of Michigan, Michigan State University and other schools in the state also have mandated vaccinations and masks.
Legislators noted they have constituents who have genuine concerns about the vaccine. They also argued employers should not be allowed to tell employees what to do with their bodies.
However, the majority of the hearing was dedicated to testimony from a series of doctors, scientists and nurses who support the measure. Most relied on vaccine and COVID-19 misinformation to bolster their arguments, which largely did not focus on the pros or cons of workplace requirements.
At no point did any medical professional representing the efficacy of vaccines — the consensus shared by the vast majority of health and safety experts — testify.
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“Should a business be able to force a vaccine on employees? In a right-to-work state, is it a constitutional violation if they did?” asked House Workforce, Trades and Talent Committee Chairwoman Beth Griffin, R-Mattawan.
“Our Michigan businesses are being done a monumental disservice here, because the only data and science they are hearing about is based on often conflicting media reports about guidance from politically motivated government agencies.”
Organizations that represent Michigan businesses oppose the bill.
Brad Williams, a vice president with the Detroit Regional Chamber, spoke against the measure. He argued it goes against the free market and represents government overreach.
“This represents the type of big government overreach many of the proponents of this legislation have long railed against and attempts to implement a one-size-fits-all solution for the thousands of businesses across the state,” Williams said.
“We’re not arguing for a vaccine mandate. We’re not arguing against a vaccine mandate. But we are arguing for vaccines, because it’s the only way out of the pandemic and the endless battles against variants.”
Audience members booed as he spoke.
Other organizations that oppose the measure include:
- The Michigan Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics
- The Michigan State Medical Society
- The Michigan Chamber of Commerce
- The Michigan Association of School Boards
- The Michigan Health and Hospital Association
- The Michigan Bankers Association
The measure would make it illegal for employers to fire or to refuse to hire someone who refuses vaccinations or masks.
The measure goes beyond COVID-19. It also would prohibit employers from requiring vaccinations against the flu, tetanus, diphtheria or pertussis. Employees could sue and collect damages against an employer who violates this proposed law.
Proponents of the measure argued the vaccine mandates are unconstitutional. However, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett — appointed by former President Donald Trump — recently declined to overturn a vaccine mandate at Indiana University.
There were also statements alleging it is a violation of HIPAA to require employees to disclose private medical information. That’s inaccurate, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
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Several speakers shared misinformation about COVID-19 and the vaccines. Those speakers, at least six of whom were doctors or had doctorates in biology, suggested the vaccines kill people and are ineffective. They shared conspiracies about everything from Dr. Anthony Fauci and the origins of the vaccine to the idea that medical face masks cause cancer.
The vast majority of experts and published research indicate COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. Vaccines and masks have helped prevent the spread of disease for decades. While those who have recovered from COVID-19 do have some protection against a future infection, second infections have occurred and there is no consensus on the level or length of protection offered by natural immunity.
Experts and media outlets have repeatedly debunked much of the misleading information shared during the hearing.
Griffin read the names of more than 100 people who support the bill. She did not say whether they had any relevant professional affiliations or credentials to merit reading their names in support of the measure.
In Michigan, COVID-19 cases are up more than 600% since late June, hospitalizations up 23% since last week and deaths are up 41% since late July, according to the state health department.
Contact Dave Boucher: firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-938-4591. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Boucher1.