LITTLE ROCK -- The Arkansas House on Tuesday advanced legislation that would require employers to let workers opt out of taking the COVID-19 vaccine, despite warnings it would conflict with President Joe Biden's vaccine mandate and threaten millions in federal funding for health care facilities around the state.
The proposal was approved by the House and sent to the Senate on a 68-23 vote. It's among several measures targeting the president's order on vaccines that have been introduced in the majority-Republican Legislature during a session that was supposed to focus on congressional redistricting.
"The intent of this bill is to protect employees from that overreach," Republican Rep. Josh Bryant, who sponsored the measure, said on the House floor.
An identical Senate-backed bill was endorsed by a House panel Tuesday, sending it toward a final vote.
The House bill would allow employees to opt out of a vaccine requirement if they are tested weekly for COVID-19 or can prove that they have antibodies against the virus. Health officials, however, have said antibody testing should not be used to assess immunity against the virus and people who have recovered from COVID-19 should still be vaccinated.
"It just seems counterproductive to me for us to work so hard in Arkansas to bring our numbers of infections and our deaths down and then oppose options to get us out of this pandemic," said Democratic Rep. Tippi McCullough, the House majority leader.
One supporter of the opt-out measure compared the federal vaccine mandate to the forced medical experimentation of Jewish people during the Holocaust, a comparison that quickly drew condemnation from the Anti-Defamation League.
"The last time this was done on such a large scale was to the Jewish people when they were guinea pigs," Republican Rep. Cindy Crawford said. The ADL tweeted that Crawford "should be ashamed of her rhetoric that undermines science and denigrates the suffering of millions murdered during the Holocaust."
Several of Arkansas' largest employers, including Springdale-based Tyson Foods and Bentonville-based Walmart, have adopted vaccine requirements for some or all of their employees. Several hospitals in the state are also requiring vaccinations for employees.
Another bill passed by the Senate a day earlier would have prohibited employers from requiring employees or subcontractors to take the vaccine. But the measure failed before the House Public Health Committee.
The House on Tuesday also upheld Speaker Matthew Shepherd's decision disqualifying another Senate-backed bill that would require the state to pay unemployment insurance to people fired for not getting vaccinated.
Shepherd ruled that the Senate proposal wasn't eligible to be considered during the Legislature's extended session because it didn't address federal COVID-19 relief funding, one of the few non-redistricting issues the Legislature is allowed to take up. Other anti-mandate measures have included relief funding to get around that restriction.
State officials have said the limits on vaccine mandates could threaten Medicare and Medicaid funding for health care facilities around the state. Business leaders have said that such measures, if enacted, could also make companies decide whether to comply with state or federal law.
Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has criticized Biden's order, opposed the opt-out measures and said they would result in more mandates for small businesses.
"Employers have the freedom to protect the health of their workplace, and government should not interfere with the employee/employer relationship," Hutchinson said in a statement released by his office. "We should not fight federal overreach with a solution that causes more problems than it solves."
The proposal faces uncertainty in the Senate, where an identical bill passed Monday but without the two-thirds vote needed for it take effect immediately. Without that threshold, the bill if enacted would not take effect until 90 days after the Legislature adjourns.