COVID: Sweeping new bill would require vaccine for every California worker

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California businesses big and small would have to require all workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19 under a new bill unveiled Friday by East Bay Assemblymember Buffy Wicks.

If lawmakers approve the proposal, the Golden State would become the first state to implement such a sweeping mandate, which would apply not only to employees but also independent contractors.

“People are craving stability,” the Oakland Democrat said. “We can make that stability happen together.”

The move comes after the U.S. Supreme Court blocked a nationwide vaccine mandate for large employers the Biden administration had hoped to implement. That decision, Wicks said, put the onus on Sacramento to act.

“It’s up to the states to decide,” Wicks said. “We feel very strong about our legal footing here.”

Assembly Bill 1993 would allow for limited medical or religious exemptions, but require testing for anyone who remains unvaccinated. The bill would require new hires to have at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by the time they start, and a second dose within 45 days. Businesses that do not comply would face a penalty, although the specifics are still being worked out.

“We haven’t determined that yet,” Wicks said, adding that she wants to have a conversation with members of the business community to create a strong bill.

“Workers deserve to be safe,” she said. “There are many jobs that can’t be done remotely.”

The bill is already generating pushback from Republicans.

“I have a whole bunch of problems with this,” said Matt Shupe, chair of the Contra Costa County GOP. “I think a bill like this only doubles down on the division and the fighting and it’s really unfortunate.”

The proposal, Shupe said, forces every business to be “an enforcer on their employees,” and puts people who don’t want to be vaccinated in an impossible position.

“Are we forcing them to become homeless? How is that good policy?” he said, adding that he thinks the state risk losing jobs or tax revenue if the mandate passes.

But health care workers, labor organizations and some business groups praised the idea Friday.

The current patchwork of mandates varies from city to city, leaving many businesses struggling to keep up and forcing them into making uncomfortable, politically charged decisions about whether to require vaccines.

“We need a statewide standard,” said John Arensmeyer, CEO of the Small Business Majority, which represents nearly 20,000 small businesses in California. “Small businesses don’t want to be traffic cops in debates about public safety.”

Businesses, he said, “just want to put their heads down and run their businesses knowing they have certainty and stability.”

From a public health perspective, said infectious disease expert John Swartzberg, mandates work where education campaigns about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, as well as outright bribery, have not, and help reduce the strain on hospitals and exhausted health care workers.

Swartzberg acknowledged that “nobody likes being told what they have to do.” But, he said, he remembers years ago when seat belt requirements were controversial. “Look at the number of lives they save.”

Last year, Wicks developed a proposal that would have required not only workers but patrons to be vaccinated. That bill never went to print. The current version, which is limited to workers, will “focus the conversation a little bit more,” she said.

This year’s bill is part of a broader slate of legislation put forward by members of the state “vaccine caucus.” State Sen. Scott Weiner, a San Francisco Democrat, has proposed legislation allowing children 12 and up to get vaccinated without parental consent, and lawmakers have also introduced bills aimed at making sure students are vaccinated.

Richard Pan, a doctor and lawmaker who chairs the state Senate’s health committee and introduced a school vaccine mandate, said the worker vaccine legislation would help protect the most vulnerable members of society, noting that while vaccines don’t entirely prevent transmission of COVID-19, they do keep people safe from severe illness and death, and reduce the likelihood of infection.

“This is so critically important,” Pan said. “We don’t want people to be worried when they go to work that they might be exposed to this disease.”

Check back for updates on this developing story.