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Alabama businesses could be caught in the crossfire of COVID-19 mandates

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A push from some conservative lawmakers for legislation banning the COVID-19 vaccine requirements for employment has left some groups concerned about the impact on Alabama businesses that could be forced to navigate conflicting state and federal laws.

Governor Kay Ivey issued an executive order Monday to support the legal battle against federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates announced by President Joe Biden last month, but on Tuesday she argued that against passing a state law that would block the mandate and put companies in a no-win situation.

The Alabama Business Council supports Ivey’s approach to challenge the requirements in court rather than through legislation.

“Governor Ivey’s executive order is a practical proposal that stands up for Alabama and keeps our economy energized,” the statement said. “Putting employers between federal and state governments creates conflict and costs the state jobs.”

Ivey’s executive order said staff in the state’s executive branch would do everything they could to not enforce the federal mandate on corporations and individuals in Alabama. But that didn’t go far enough for some Republican lawmakers who did pushed for a state law that would make it illegal for employers to demand COVID-19 vaccinations.

During a speech in Mobile on Tuesday, Ivey said it “makes no sense to have a federal law and state law at odds”. Bills like HB 31, sponsored by Alabama Rep. Rep. Ritchie Whorton, R-Owens Cross Roads, who would make it illegal to discriminate based on vaccination status, would force employers to choose between violating state or federal law. According to the Health Freedom Alabama website, the bill has nearly two dozen co-sponsors.

Mark Colson, president of the Alabama Trucking Association, also said his organization supports Ivey’s approach.

“Ultimately, government has a responsibility to create clarity, consistency and trust for the private sector and let the job creators do their job,” Colson said. “The proposed legislation by Rep. Whorton is a government oversight that would spark a flurry of lawsuits against businesses and bring another payday for the trial bar! We are united in our opposition to HB31 and the Biden Vaccine mandate.”

Federal employees and contractors, including college employees in Alabama, must be fully vaccinated by December 8. Biden has also announced plans to require vaccinations for health care professionals and employees of large companies, but deadlines and waivers to those rules have not been announced.

In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order banning vaccine mandates in his state, but an attempt to pass an anti-mandatory bill during a special legislative session failed despite opposition from corporate groups. Two dozen medical and business advocacy groups criticized that state’s anti-vaccine mandate law. Abbott’s executive order remains in effect. Montana also has a law that prohibits discrimination based on vaccine status. Becker’s Hospital Review has a list of 12 states with some form of anti-vaccine mandate.

Some major Alabama employers are already requiring employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or apply for a waiver. Ascension, a national group of Catholic hospitals with locations in Alabama, is demanding shots for workers before Nov. 12.

Tyson Foods required employees to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 1, a policy the company says has resulted in a 96 percent vaccination rate. Before vaccines became widely available, poultry and meat processing plants faced some of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the country.

Donald Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association, said his organization has not taken a position on vaccine mandates. Each hospital makes its own decision about whether or not to require COVID-19 vaccination. He said they are awaiting final guidance from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency that makes payments to hospitals and enforces the rules.

If Alabama passes laws that conflict with federal requirements, he said the courts will have to decide which rule prevails. So far, courts have largely upheld the vaccination requirements of states and private companies. But he said its members are waiting for the final requirement to see how it can be tied to federal payments.

“Clearly, hospitals, as Medicare and Medicaid recipients, if CMS promulgate a requirement that hospitals receiving Medicare Medicaid have vaccinated employees or alternatively have medical or religious waivers or testing options, hospitals will comply to receive compensation, Williamson said.

After Ivey issued the executive order, the state universities announced plans to follow the federal mandate and demand vaccinations by December 8.

Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said some major companies initially supported Biden’s proposed mandate.

“But even large companies are now concerned about the effect of layoffs before the holiday, especially the airlines,” Jillson said. “They don’t want their holiday traffic to be disrupted by pilots stopping or going on leave.”

That opposition could delay the mandate for big companies, adding to confusion over the issue.

Williamson said he expects more legal battles before new rules come into effect.

“Right now we are waiting and observing,” Williamson said.