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Can your employer make you get a COVID vaccine? Some SC lawmakers looking to prevent it

·4 min read
Joshua Boucher/

South Carolina lawmakers are seeking to prevent employers from requiring their workers to get the COVID-19 vaccine, as federal courts strike down President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandates.

A panel of lawmakers who handle budget-writing for the state advanced a piece of legislation aimed preventing employer-driven vaccine mandates while also providing money for employers to pay for weekly COVID-19 testing for unvaccinated workers.

The legislation would provides $10 million from state reserves to pay for the regular COVID testing.

Under the proposal, the mandate ban would apply to public and private employers.

The bill also would require employers to rehire employees who they terminated for not getting the vaccine and have the employer pay legal fees and court costs.

School districts also wouldn’t be able to require students to take the vaccine, and state and local governments wouldn’t be able to mandate first responders to be vaccinated against COVID.

The budget-writing panel voted 3-1 to move the bill to forward to the full Ways and Means Committee on Thursday. State Reps. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter; Gary Simrill, R-York; and Bill Whitmire, R-Oconee, voted in favor of the bill. State Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, voted against it.

Only a handful of people spoke at the hearing on Tuesday to voice their opposition to vaccine mandates.

One of those was John Baker, a firefighter from Charleston, who refused to take the vaccine after the city mandated it. A federal judge recently upheld vaccine mandates by local governments for public employees in Charleston, North Charleston, Charleston County and the St. John’s Fire District, saying, in part, that employees’ “right to express themselves by refusing the COVID-19 vaccine is outweighed by the government’s interest in protecting their employees and communities from a deadly infectious disease.”

“We just want to our jobs. We want to do what we were trained to do, and we want to continue to do it for a long and healthy career,” Baker said.

On Tuesday, a federal judge struck down a vaccine mandate for federal contractors put in place by the Biden Administration. Courts also have struck down federal vaccine mandates for health care workers and for employers with at least 100 employees.

The new South Carolina legislation is being pushed by state Rep. Stewart Jones, R-Laurens, who earlier this year proposed two controversial provisions that were added to the state budget, aimed at preventing mask mandates in K-12 schools and at colleges and universities.

Both of those one-year provisions were struck down by courts.

Given the courts’ decisions on those anti-mask-mandate provisions, it is unclear how a similar anti-vaccine-mandate provision would be legally enforced on private businesses.

“I think one thing we are certain that the federal government has no authority to enforce a vaccine mandate,” said Jones, who would not disclose his own vaccination status. “With that in mind, it ultimately comes down to the states. I think the states are going to have to deal with it on a state-by-state basis.”

But this move goes against Gov. Henry McMaster’s stance that the government should not tell a business what not to do, leaving it up to employers to decide whether to require vaccination.

“(In) South Carolina we are a right to work state and I’m proud of that I’m proud we’re right to work,” Jones said. “As a business owner, as somebody who pushes for less regulations, I think the key to this it was initially prompted by the federal government. And that’s what we’re wanting to stop you know, basically a nanny state telling you, ‘you’ve got to do this.’”

South Carolina’s status as a so-called “right to work” state means only that workers in the state cannot be compelled to join a labor union. It has nothing else to do with employers’ or employees’ rights in the workplace.

The push for the anti-vaccine-mandate legislation comes days after a group of protesters against vaccine mandates showed up at the State House.

“You all being here in a compelling and a calm way of going about doing what is best for South Carolinians is extremely important,” Simrill said to those who attended Tuesday’s hearing.

The House initially had not planned to come back to work on COVID issues, opting to only deal with redistricting during the late-year session.

But the Legislature’s agreement to work during the non-regular session allows it to work on COVID matters related to funding, Simrill said.

Simrill denied moving the legislation was a way to appease people angry over possible vaccine mandates.

“As much as somebody is going to yell, ‘Don’t adjourn until you do something’, the facts are you have to vet bills. This bill has to be vetted,” Simrill said. “But I think if you listen to people’s pleas, versus yelling, hear the plea is, ‘We’re desperate, we need help.’”

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