Governor Kim Reynolds was "proud" to sign a bill designed to make it easier for Iowans to get around COVID-19 vaccination mandates in the workplace. State Representative Henry Stone, who floor managed the bill in the House, said Republicans worked on this legislation for months, seeking ways to lessen the impact of the Biden administration's expected rules requiring large employers to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations or frequent testing of employees.
Democrats had no input on the proposal and did not see the bill text until hours before lawmakers debated House File 902 on October 28. Nevertheless, both chambers approved the bill by surprisingly large margins: 68 votes to 27 in the House and 45 votes to 4 in the Senate.
Why did so many Democrats vote for a bill that one supporter described as "a joke" during debate?
KEY PROVISIONS OF THE COVID-19 VACCINE LAW
Under House File 902, employers "shall waive" coronavirus vaccine mandates for employees who submit either of the following: a "statement that receiving the vaccine would be injurious to the health and well-being of the employee or an individual residing with the employee," or a "statement that receiving the vaccine would conflict with the tenets and practices of a religion of which the employee is an adherent or member."
No medical professional would need to confirm a vaccination would threaten anyone's "health and well-being," nor would employees need to prove they were part of any established religion.
In addition, the law makes Iowans eligible to receive unemployment benefits if they lose their jobs for refusing a COVID-19 vaccine.
House File 902 does not prohibit business owners from firing those who won't get vaccinated, despite a statement from Reynolds implying otherwise ("no Iowan should be forced to lose their job or livelihood over the COVID-19 vaccine"). Republican State Senator Jason Schultz, who floor managed the bill in the upper chamber, explained during debate that lawmakers feared a ban on vaccine mandates could be struck down in court, like Iowa's ban on school mask mandates was blocked by a federal judge last month.
Stone said the bill would help employers who "don't want to fire their employees." They would be allowed to "keep their workforce by accepting medical and religious exemptions."
Many anti-vaccine activists who rallied at the capitol on October 28 denounced the bill, because it doesn't ban workplace vaccination mandates. One of them told Iowa Public Radio's Katarina Sostaric, "we the people were blindsided with last-minute legislation that is ineffective and designed to look good but fail.”
WHICH DEMOCRATS VOTED YES AND NO
Every Republican lawmaker present on October 28 voted for House File 902, except for State Representative Mark Cisneros, who called the bill "kabuki theater" and a "failure of leadership."
The roll call shows the following twelve Iowa House Democrats also supported the COVID-19 vaccine law:
- Liz Bennett
- Christina Bohannan
- Tracy Ehlert
- Chris Hall
- Steve Hansen
- Brian Meyer
- Amy Nielsen
- Kirsten Running-Marquardt
- Ras Smith
- Sharon Steckman
- Kristin Sunde
- Mary Wolfe
These 26 House Democrats voted no:
- Ako Abdul-Samad
- Marti Anderson
- Sue Cahill
- Dennis Cohoon
- Molly Donahue
- John Forbes
- Ruth Ann Gaines
- Eric Gjerde
- Bruce Hunter
- Chuck Isenhart
- Dave Jacoby
- Lindsay James
- Kenan Judge
- Jennifer Konfrst
- Bob Kressig
- Monica Kurth
- Mary Mascher
- Charlie McConkey
- Jo Oldson
- Rick Olson
- Todd Prichard
- Art Staed
- Beth Wessel-Kroeschell
- Ross Wilburn
- Dave Williams
- Cindy Winckler
Democratic Representative Timi Brown-Powers, who had to leave the statehouse before the floor vote, confirmed she would have voted against it as well.
More than two-thirds of Senate Democrats joined all the Republicans present to pass the bill. These thirteen senators voted yes:
- Tony Bisignano
- Nate Boulton
- Bill Dotzler
- Eric Giddens
- Kevin Kinney
- Jim Lykam
- Liz Mathis
- Janet Petersen
- Herman Quirmbach
- Amanda Ragan
- Jackie Smith
- Todd Taylor
- Zach Wahls
Senators Joe Bolkcom, Claire Celsi, Pam Jochum, and Sarah Trone Garriott voted no. Senator Rob Hogg was absent from the October 28 special session.
"UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS ARE THERE FOR A REASON"
The highest-ranking Democrat to vote for the COVID-19 vaccine law was Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls. Reporter Erin Murphy asked him why during the October 29 edition of the Iowa PBS program "Iowa Press." Wahls explained,
Democrats have been very consistent through the entire pandemic that unemployment benefits should be there for families who need them. And so it's Republicans, actually, who have been very hypocritical on this issue, they have been all over the map, they have sometimes supported unemployment and sometimes they have supported the governor trying to strip unemployment away from families.
Our position has been really clear: families who need unemployment should be able to get those benefits. And so, I didn't like the process around yesterday's bill, it was dropped at the 11th hour, there wasn't really the opportunity for public input, it's not the bill that Senate Democrats would have written if we had the majority, but given all the various circumstances that we were dealing with, and again, our consistent support for families that depend on that unemployment -- I had a few colleagues on the Democratic side who voted no because of some of those process concerns -- but from a big picture perspective around supporting those families who need it, we've always been there, we're going to still be there.
Responding to follow-up questions, Wahls explained that he would have preferred language requiring something like a doctor's note attesting to a medical reason not to get vaccinated. That's required for children attending public schools to be exempt from various required vaccinations.
When lawmakers debated the bill, several Democrats expressed support for the bill on similar grounds. Here's State Senator Janet Petersen.
"Paychecks matter to Iowa families," Petersen said. She recalled the struggle many Iowans have faced after losing their jobs, including this summer, when Reynolds cut thousands of people off from pandemic-related unemployment benefits.
"Senate Democrats believe unemployment benefits are there for a reason: to support Iowa families when they lose their job through no fault of their own," Petersen said. "And so while this bill is not written as I believe Senate Democrats would have written it, I would still encourage a yes vote, saying that we believe in the financial stability of families."
"THIS BILL IS A JOKE"
Some Democrats who ended up voting for the bill were much more critical during the debates. State Senator Tony Bisignano was the most animated as he highlighted what he saw as the bill's flaws.
Bisignano mocked the floor manager Schultz: "You talk about standing up for the rights and freedoms of Iowans. This bill doesn't stand up for anything. All you're doing is buying people off" with unemployment payments. Democrats "don't like to cut unemployment—and we know you do—but we don't."
He said he spent time speaking with anti-vaccine activists in the rotunda. "They don't want this bill."
So let's don't play like, "Oh, we're taking care of Iowans and their rights," because we're not. The consolation gift is unemployment.
They're losing their jobs. That's what they're protesting, is losing their job based on their liberty, based on their religion and based on their medical history. Not unemployment.
At the end of the road, when you wear out your weeks, and they're still out of a job, and the unemployment stops, what did they get? They didn't get anything.
A minute later, Bisignano raised his voice as he questioned why anyone should have to reveal their religion to anyone to justify a decision about vaccines.
This bill is a joke. I'm going to support it, just on the premise of unemployment. Because I think there are legitimate people with medical concerns that I will not deny unemployment benefits to. Single parents.
But we're missing the mark. Let's don't brag about freedoms and liberties when we're giving nothing to these people. Nothing. And don't say it. It's not true.
We need to talk about what is the religious freedom, and why do I have to expose myself? Why do I have to expose my medical condition to my employer? [...]
This is a critical debate. And I'm not going to stand in this room and let somebody talk about religious freedom when this does nothing but to give you chump change in exchange for your freedom. We're buying their freedom.
Bisignano said a lot of activists he talked to earlier in the day "are pretty upset" by being led to believe the Republicans would support them, only to get a "cosmetic" bill. "We've actually insulted them by saying stand by your convictions. Because you're going to lose a $50,000 a year job, and we're going to give you 200 bucks a week in unemployment."
State Representative Mary Wolfe challenged the House floor manager Stone in this clip.
Wolfe pointed out that independent contractors (a "huge" workforce in Iowa) would not be allowed to collect unemployment benefits if they were terminated for not getting a COVID-19 vaccination. More broadly,
This bill doesn't do anything to protect the jobs of Iowans who refuse to get a vaccine. [...]
It doesn't protect the job of a single Iowan who refuses to comply with a vaccine mandate. All it does is say that they remain eligible for unemployment compensation benefits. And that's good, because I do think that the vast majority of these people want to work, they want to keep their job. And if they end up getting fired because they won't get a vaccine, I want people to be able to feed their children and pay their bills and contribute to their local economy.
But let's not pretend that this does thing one to protect anybody's jobs. Because it just doesn't.
Wolfe noted that businesses would not be forbidden or penalized for firing employees who refuse the vaccine, or required to rehire them. She said allowing workers to collect unemployment in this situation is "a good thing," but not what activists "were asking for."
COULD THE NEW LAW INCREASE VACCINE MANDATES IN IOWA?
Democratic State Senator Herman Quirmbach made a counter-intuitive case for the bill.
Quirmbach doesn't see the legislation weakening workplace mandates. On the contrary, he thanked Schultz for "bringing this bill forward to legalize vaccine mandates in this state." He said the bill spelled out conditions under which employers can impose vaccine mandates, clearing a legal pathway for the policy.
True, the bill allows for religious or medical exemptions. But those are already established in Iowa with respect to mandatory childhood vaccinations.
In addition, Quirmbach argued, the bill insulates employers who adopt mandates "from any adverse consequences to their unemployment compensation rating" if they end up firing unvaccinated employees. That "removes a disincentive" for imposing a mandate.
He predicted the bill would lead to more employers requiring COVID-19 vaccinations, which would be "a good thing." Other states' experience shows mandates increase vaccination rates, making workplaces and employees safer, along with their families.
Finally, Quirmbach said he appreciated that workers who object to the vaccines are not denied unemployment compensation. "I disagree with those workers' views, but I don't want to see them or their families impoverished because of that."
WHY MANY DEMOCRATS OPPOSED THE BILL
The Democrats who spoke publicly about opposing the COVID-19 vaccine law mostly did not advocate for workplace mandates. Nor did they say fired workers shouldn't receive unemployment benefits. They raised a variety of other concerns.
For State Senator Sarah Trone Garriott, the undemocratic process was a deal-breaker. The public had no notice about the bill, which appeared only hours before it was debated. No one from the public was able to speak about the bill in subcommittee, because no one had any idea when the Senate subcommittee would meet.
There was "no time" for legislators to gather comments from constituents or get their questions answered. "The people of Iowa have been shut out," Trone Garriott concluded. "That's not democracy. So in good conscience, and being faithful to my duty as a state senator, I have to vote no."
State Senator Claire Celsi told Bleeding Heartland that she opposed the bill for three reasons. First, it "was poorly written and there was no public notice." Second, "it would place the burden of providing the unvaccinated unemployment on businesses who will pay higher unemployment insurance rates to cover the individuals who decided not to get vaccinated."
Most important from Celsi's perspective, "it would set up a system in which employers are deciding who qualifies for a vaccine exception and the employee will have to share personal health information and their religion with their employer."
Mascher asked Stone whether he had requested a fiscal note on the bill to see how much it might cost the state. He had not. Mascher said House Democrats had requested a note but hadn't received it yet. That wasn't surprising, since they had seen the bill for the first time just four hours earlier.
There "will definitely be an impact" on Iowa's unemployment compensation fund, Mascher said. That's why the Iowa Association for Business and Industry opposed the bill. "They don't know the impact that it will have either. And obviously we should know that before we vote on a bill in the House. So I'm disappointed that you didn't take the time to get that for us before we debated this bill."
Mascher emphasized how important it is "for us to do our homework here. We have a responsibility to the people of Iowa to thoroughly vet bills before we vote on them."
It's not every day Iowa Democrats are on the same page as the Association of Business and Industry. That group warned,
ABI does not support mandates at both the state and federal level and continues to assert the Biden Administration’s vaccine mandate is misguided. However, this legislation the Iowa Legislature approved now puts employers at risk of possibly facing federal penalties of up to $14,000 per violation.
Furthermore, if there is a large number of claims filed by workers, even Iowa businesses complying with the new legislation could soon face increased financial liability through additional unemployment tax levies to maintain a solvent unemployment trust fund. To ABI’s knowledge, no other state has passed similar legislation allowing workers who are discharged for refusing the vaccine to collect unemployment insurance.
State Representative Dave Jacoby tweeted that he was a "hell no!" on the bill. He said it would impose government control over small business, increase payroll taxes, take money away from laid off workers and plant closings, reward misconduct, and prolong the pandemic.
Top image: Democratic State Senator Tony Bisignano speaks during the October 28 debate on House File 902. Screen shot from the official Iowa Senate video.