California’s employee COVID vaccine mandate bill is shelved

One of the most far-reaching vaccine bills introduced in the California Legislature this year will not move forward as planned after the proposal to require workers to be inoculated against COVID-19 was shelved on the eve of its first hearing.

Citing improved conditions and opposition from public safety unions, Assembly Member Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) said she would hold Assembly Bill 1993, which would have required employees and independent contractors to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition of employment unless they have an exemption based on a medical condition, disability or religious beliefs.

The move comes as a group of truck drivers protesting COVID-19 mandates around Washington, D.C., has said it plans to head to California to oppose vaccine legislation in the Golden State. AB 1993 is among the bills listed on the People’s Convoy website that the group plans to protest when it arrives in California.

AB 1993 was scheduled to be heard in the Assembly Committee on Labor and Employment on Wednesday.

“We introduced AB 1993 because of the high volume of workers, employers and public health experts who expressed the need for vaccine requirements, yet felt unable to make these changes on their own,” Wicks said in a statement. “We are now in a new and welcome chapter in this pandemic, with the virus receding for the moment. This provides for us the opportunity to work more collaboratively with labor and employers to address concerns raised by the bill.”

Wicks said she was disappointed by opposition from public safety unions including the California Assn. of Highway Patrolmen, California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. and California Professionals Firefighters, noting that “it’s my hope that they will ultimately come to the table to make sure all of their workers are vaccinated, and that every job sector in California has the tools necessary to keep their workers safe from COVID-19.”

State workers are currently required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing. Vaccination rates among some state public safety departments have remained much lower than the general public, including with the California Highway Patrol and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, according to data from the state human resources department.

In Los Angeles, the city has fended off legal challenges from groups of firefighters and police employees seeking to halt local vaccine requirements.

The California Professional Firefighters union said a blanket vaccine mandate for all employers would undermine “the strength and importance of local bargaining and labor negotiations.”

“We have worked with policy makers on proposals to ensure worker health and safety through paid sick leave and other policy measures,” the union wrote in opposition, adding that it has “worked to educate our members on vaccination options and encouraged them to engage their local government employers on issues associated with COVID-19 safety protocols including vaccination.”

Under the bill, the Department of Fair Employment and Housing and California Division of Occupational Safety and Health would have been required to work with the state’s public health department on guidance for employers on what would constitute a valid exemption. Businesses would face a penalty for failing to comply, although the amount had yet to be determined. Employers would have had to notify the state that all workers were vaccinated against COVID-19 by Jan. 1, 2023.

An analysis of the bill by the Assembly Committee on Labor and Employment raised several questions about the bill, including how the state would ensure employers were in compliance and how workplaces would be investigated if they were suspected of failing to comply.

Tuesday’s announcement that Wicks would hold off on the bill comes after a previous attempt also stalled. Last year, Wicks planned to introduce a wide-ranging vaccine bill but it was abandoned in the final weeks of the legislative session. That proposal was never formally introduced, but draft language of Wicks’ bill was leaked and called for Californians to show proof of vaccination to enter many indoor businesses and would have required both public- and private-sector workers to be fully vaccinated or regularly tested.

“Vaccines and vaccine requirements remain a critical tool for moving from pandemic to endemic,” Wicks said. “That work is still needed, and it could still ensure that millions more Californians become vaccinated. We will continue to monitor new variants and waves, engage with stakeholders on all sides, listen to our public health experts, and be prepared to take action to keep our workers safe and our economy moving.”

Other vaccine bills introduced by Democratic lawmakers who formed a vaccine working group this year remain active in the state Legislature, including Senate Bill 871 by state Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) to require the COVID-19 vaccine for all schoolchildren in the state. Senate Bill 866 by Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) would allow children 12 and up to be vaccinated without parental consent. And Assembly Bill 1797 by Assembly member Akilah Weber (D-San Diego) would allow California school officials to more easily check student vaccine records by expanding access to a statewide immunization database.

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