Over the course of the past month, the House Health Committee has heard hours of testimony from both citizens and organizations regarding HB 248, controversial legislation that would weaken Ohio’s vaccination laws. Proponents claim it is about medical freedom and vaccine choice and opponents say it would put public health in peril and potentially reverse decades of immunity from life-threatening, but vaccine-preventable, diseases. Some of the testimony has brought the wrong kind of attention to Ohio, like when a doctor who supported the bill claimed that the COVID vaccine actually magnetizes people so that metallic objects can stick to their bodies.
This week, the Ohio Chamber got our opportunity to weigh in on the bill, testifying as an opponent. The Ohio Chamber has long been an advocate for allowing employers to manage their workplaces free of undue interference from all levels of government. HB 248 does just the opposite, by restricting their rights to decide the most effective approaches for building and maintaining a healthy workplace.
Our testimony focused on three aspects of the bill that are of concern to the employer community: 1) the bill’s prohibition on employers mandating, requiring, or otherwise requesting an employee receive a vaccine; 2) the bill’s prohibition on the ability of employers to make other decisions based on an individual’s vaccination status; and 3) the creation of a new cause of action that would allow individuals to sue an employer or business alleged to have violated any of the new prohibitions established by HB 248.
Few employers have, or likely ever would, require employees to receive a vaccine. Those that do must consider a variety of legal and other factors before putting such a requirement in place. However, some employers have determined that requiring employees to be vaccinated is necessary in order to safeguard the health of other employees and their families, clients and visitors, or their communities. HB 248 takes the right to make that determination away from the employer, who obviously understands their workplace better than anyone else. It also upends Ohio’s at-will employment doctrine, which allows an employer to terminate an employee at any time for almost any reason – such as an employee’s refusal to comply with a vaccination requirement.
In addition to HB 248 being an attempt to impose a government-knows-best, one-size-fits-all policy on private businesses, the bill also exposes employers to an increased risk of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) levying penalties against them. The legislation’s prohibition on treating individuals differently based upon their vaccination status would prevent businesses from having non-vaccinated employees or customers wear facial coverings, which in turn is problematic because OSHA is currently enforcing the CDC’s COVID-19 guidance requiring people who have not yet received the COVID-19 vaccine to wear a facial covering indoors. As a result, if HB 248 were to pass, Ohio employers either risk an OSHA violation and fine if they do not enforce the CDC’s COVID-19 policy, or would open themselves up to litigation alleging they violated Ohio law by treating an individual differently based upon their vaccination status – a Catch-22 for businesses.
The bill would also preclude a business from treating its customers differently based on, or from even asking them about, their vaccination status. This means a business could not offer coupons or other discounts or benefits to encourage vaccination, nor could it ask unvaccinated employees or patrons to wear a mask, even if there were high-risk individuals present.
Lastly, HB 248 would create a new cause of action that individuals can pursue against employers. In other words, it would create new grounds for filing a lawsuit. This represents a significant reversal from the General Assembly’s efforts, supported strongly by the Ohio Chamber, over the past two decades to rein in frivolous lawsuits and create a common-sense civil justice system that is fair and predictable.
Given all of these concerns, we are urging lawmakers to reject the legislation altogether.