BISMARCK — A North Dakota lawmaker has brought forward a bill that would ban employers in the state from requiring their workers to get vaccines. The proposal would also give business owners protection against civil lawsuits from employees who come down with an illness on the job.
Rep. Ben Koppelman said House Bill 1301 provides "a reasonable balance between the rights of the employer and the rights of the employee." The West Fargo Republican said workers would gain the freedom to direct their own medical care, while employers would have less liability.
Koppelman said the bill is not written to be anti-vaccine, but rather enables more personal choice around immunizations. He added that the issues of mandatory vaccines and employer liability are particularly relevant in the age of COVID-19, but the bill is meant to be all-encompassing.
The bill would have the greatest impact on hospitals and nursing homes, which often require employees to get flu shots or other routine vaccinations. Lobbyists for medical organizations have expressed major concerns about the proposal, but Koppelman said an exception in the bill allows health care facilities to mandate vaccines.
Even within the exception, health care employees can easily opt out of vaccines for "health, religious, or philosophical reasons," which undermines any ability to require immunizations, said Shelly Peterson, president of the North Dakota Long Term Care Association.
About a third of nursing homes in the state require flu shots to protect their workforce and vulnerable residents, Peterson said. She noted that her organization has asked Koppelman to remove the "philosophical" exception, and even tailor the bill to only apply to the COVID-19 vaccine. She added that only one nursing home in the state has told her organization that it was mandating that newly developed immunization.
Koppelman said the bill may be fine-tuned with feedback from the health care industry, though he did not specify what changes could be coming.
Peterson noted that she was in favor of the portion of Koppelman's bill that gives employers protection against civil lawsuits from employees who became infected with a communicable disease at work. But Peterson said the industry prefers House Bill 1175, a proposal introduced by Rep. Michael Howe, R-West Fargo, that provides the same kind of protection.
Koppelman said many businesses have undergone temporary closures during the pandemic because they feared employees would sue them after falling ill, and the liability protection would give employers some cover while keeping businesses running.
A committee hearing on the bill has not yet been scheduled.