Bill would require severance pay if Arizona employers fire unvaccinated workers
Arizonans fired from their jobs for refusing to get vaccinated against COVID-19 could end up with the company having to continue to pay them for a year.
The state House gave preliminary approval Monday to legislation that makes such payments automatic, though it permits either a lump sum or installments. The only way for a firm to escape the financial hit would be to give the worker the job back — but with a "reasonable accommodation" to honor any claim of a religious exemption.
And HB 2198, which now awaits a roll-call vote, actually would be retroactive, covering any who lost a job as long ago as December.
Rep. Steve Kaiser (R-Phoenix) said the payment is justified.
"A lot of folks are in industries possibly that could require this," he said.
"They will have a tough time finding employment," Kaiser continued. "So they will need time to find employment."
But Kaiser said it's also a matter of civil rights. He said state and federal laws both require employers to honor a worker's "sincerely held religious beliefs" against getting vaccinated.
"And they're supposed to provide accommodations to their workers," Kaiser said. That usually takes the form of some alternate options, like being placed separate from other workers or even working at home.
The only thing is, nothing in Kaiser's legislation mentions the issue of workers having a religious reason for refusing the vaccine. And, as written, it would permit employees to object for any reason and, if denied some accommodation, demand a year's worth of salary.
State lawmakers have proposed several measures to prohibit government agencies from requiring that workers be vaccinated.
Proposals to extend the same prohibition on private employers, however, have failed to get sufficient support for approval. Kaiser's measure provides a work-around of sorts, with no bar but instead just a financial disincentive.
But not all Republicans are pleased with the alternative.
Rep. David Cook (R-Globe) said if a company is violating state and federal law, as Kaiser contends, there is recourse through the courts where evidence can be presented. Kaiser, however, said that's not an acceptable option, especially when he said it puts an individual worker against "one of these massive companies."
"That's going to be very expensive," he said. "It's going to be more than a year to finish that lawsuit."
Kaiser acknowledged there is the option of filing a civil rights complaint with the attorney general's office "which they have been doing by the hundreds and the thousands." That, too, he said, doesn't solve the problem.
"It takes a long time," Kaiser said.
"The person's already been fired," he continued. "There is no recourse. And they can't get another job in the industry."
Cook remained unconvinced, saying the measure runs contrary to Republican principles that say government should not be setting the work conditions of private employers.
"I disagree," Kaiser responded. "They do not have the right to fire you if you file a religious exemption from something they're asking you to do."
Kaiser furnished Capitol Media Services with emails from people who told them of being fired for refusing to get the vaccine.
Among the complaints were from people who said they have "natural immunity" as a result of having previously had COVID-19 as well as those who contend not only the vaccine but also the testing procedure are dangerous. But at least one person said he never asked for an exemption before being let go.