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House Democrats object to governor’s vaccine exemption bill during press conference

CHARLESTON — House of Delegates Democratic leaders gathered Thursday morning to decry the governor’s COVID-19 vaccine exemption bill, HB 335.

“I’m concerned about the message our governor is sending,” Minority Leader Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, said. On the one hand, Gov. Jim Justice says he doesn’t want to tell businesses what to do; on the other, he hands down this bill that potentially conflicts with federal regulations.

“We are now telling businesses how to run their business,” Skaff said.

HB 335, and its Senate companion, SB 3035, says an employer that requires vaccination for hiring or continued employment must grant certain exemptions, based on receiving from the current or prospective employee:

  • A certification from a physician or nurse practitioner that a vaccine is not safe for that person or the person has natural antibody immunity from COVID-19 exposure or recovery;
  • A notarized certificate of religious objection.

The bill prohibits penalizing or discriminating against current or prospective employees who seek an exemption, and provides for injunctive relief in court.

On the House floor, HB 335 was on second reading. An attempt to suspend the House rules to allow it to move to third reading for passage fell short, with a 75-21 vote, short of the required 80 votes. In the Senate, SB 3035 was also on second reading and was laid over with action to move it to third.

At the morning press conference, Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, said he believes that elements of the bill are vague and need to be clarified, notably this phrase listing one of the options for a medical exemption: “There exists a specific precaution to the mandated vaccine.”

Several delegates echoed the thoughts of representatives of the West Virginia Hospital Association and state Chamber of Commerce who addressed the Government Organization Committee Wednesday that the bill sets up potential conflicts with existing federal and state regulations governing accommodation for religious and medical exemptions.

And this sets up the potential loss of Medicare and Medicaid funding for the medical facilities, and potential lawsuits for the employers, they said.

Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, said the state Human Rights Act and Title VII of the federal Equal Opportunity Act contain provisions. And coming soon are vaccine mandates for businesses from OSHA and mandates for medical facilities that receive Medicaid and Medicare funds from the Centers for Medicaid & Medicare Services.

Delegate Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell, said, “It puts our businesses and our hospitals in a situation that’s a landmine — which rule do you follow?”

Several delegates repeated an objection raised on the House floor Wednesday: It didn’t go through the Health Committee even though it’s health related.

“This bill is not about government organizations; this bill is about private employers,” Fleischauer said.

Skaff raised one more objection to the bill: West Virginia is first in the nation for its child vaccination rate. “This is the beginning of an erosion of our vaccine laws.”

Some delegates pointed out that Majority Leader Amy Summers, R-Taylor, is lead sponsor of the bill. Typically, the speaker sponsors a governor’s bill and they wondered why Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, didn’t.

Hanshaw said through his spokeswoman that Summers wrote the bill and did all the work on it, so he wanted her to have credit for it.

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